BAGHDAD, Iraq – A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down in northern Iraq, killing all 12 Americans believed to be aboard in the deadliest crash in nearly a year, while five U.S. Marines died in weekend attacks, the military said Sunday.
The latest deaths followed an especially bloody week in which about 200 Iraqis and a dozen U.S. troops were killed. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, claimed headway in forming a stable coalition government following the Dec. 15 elections, whose final results may be released this week.
U.S. military officials said the UH-60 Black Hawk crashed just before midnight Saturday about seven miles east of Tal Afar, a northern city near the Syrian border that has seen heavy fighting with insurgents.
“All (those killed) are believed to be U.S. citizens,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.
He did not say what caused the crash, but bad weather has wracked most of Iraq.
The Black Hawk was part of a two-helicopter team providing support for the 101st Airborne Division and was flying between bases when communications were lost, the military said. After a search, the helicopter was found about noon Sunday, the military said.
The helicopter was part of Task Force Band of Brothers and attached to the 101st Aviation Brigade, but Maj. Tom Bryant, spokesman for the division’s 3rd Brigade, said the helicopter was not from Fort Campbell, Ky., and belonged to another unit.
Bryant could not say what unit the helicopter belonged to or whether any soldiers from the 101st were aboard. Master Sgt. Terry Webster of division public affairs could not identify what unit operated the helicopter.
It was the deadliest helicopter crash in Iraq since a CH-53 Sea Stallion went down in bad weather in western Iraq on Jan. 26, 2005, killing 31 U.S. service members.
In Saturday’s crash, records indicated that eight passengers and four crew members were aboard.
Three Marines were killed Sunday by small arms attacks in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. Two other Marines were killed Saturday by roadside bombs in separate incidents, the military said.
With the latest Marine deaths, at least 2,199 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. That toll did not include those killed aboard the Black Hawk.
In other violence Sunday, five people died in separate attacks in Baghdad, including a policeman killed by a suicide car bomber targeting an Interior Ministry patrol. Seven others were wounded.
Meanwhile, a French engineer abducted Dec. 5 apparently was dumped on a Baghdad street by his fleeing captors and recovered by U.S. troops, who turned him over to the French Embassy on Sunday, according to Iraqi police and the French Foreign Ministry in Paris.
Bernard Planche, 52, was kidnapped on his way to work at a water plant. Planche, who worked for a nongovernmental organization called AACCESS, was found Saturday night near a checkpoint in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood. His captors had demanded the withdrawal from Iraq of French troops – even though the country has none in Iraq.
Insurgents have kidnapped more than 250 foreigners in the past two years, aiming to force U.S.-led troops to leave Iraq or prevent Arab nations from strengthening their ties with Baghdad.
The leader of Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political group said after meeting President Jalal Talabani that significant headway has been made in efforts to form a government of national unity.
“Talabani and I have an identical point of view regarding the formation of a national-unity government based on consensus,” Adnan al-Dulaimi said.
Al-Dulaimi confirmed that Iraq’s two Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani, have been mediating with other groups to form a coalition government.
Their efforts seem to have forged an understanding between the main Shiite religious bloc and al-Dulaimi’s group – which represent two traditionally hostile camps whose enmity often threatens to plunge Iraq into sectarian warfare.
In recent days, Shiite leaders have threatened reprisals against the minority Sunni Arabs following twin suicide attacks that killed more than 100 people. They have blamed the attacks on both the Sunni-Arab-led insurgency and some Sunni Arab political groups they say openly support the militants.
Talabani said Saturday that Iraq’s political groups could form a coalition government within weeks – and some experts say the new government could be formed next month.
Forming a viable broad-based government is a key American goal because such an administration, if it includes Sunni Arabs, could help defuse the insurgency.