BAGHDAD, Iraq - A U.S. helicopter on a mission supporting Sunday's national election crashed amid sandstorms in western Iraq early yesterday, killing 30 Marines and one Navy sailor, the military said, marking the deadliest day for U.S. forces since the invasion in March 2003.
The death toll climbed to 37 when six other American troops - four of them believed to be Marines from a Baltimore-based unit - were killed yesterday in unrelated incidents as insurgents seeking to disrupt the vote launched a wave of attacks that killed or wounded dozens of Iraqis.
The CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed outside the desert town of Rutbah; no survivors were found. The crash occurred during severe weather, but its cause remains under investigation, said Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command.
The deaths drove the number of Americans killed in Iraq above 1,400 and underscored the unrelenting danger facing U.S. forces in Iraq.
President Bush mourned the losses yesterday and urged Americans to find hope in the prospects for Iraq's first election since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"Listen, the story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people. I understand that. We value life, and we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life," he said. "But it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom."
The spike in the death toll comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill are intensifying calls for a timetable to withdraw troops. But Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said yesterday that the United States has no intention of adopting a "get-out-of-Dodge strategy."
The run-up to the election has been marked by persistent bloodshed, as the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency uses bombings and assassinations in an effort to undermine a vote that it fears could install a U.S.-backed government dominated by Shiite Muslim rivals.
Yesterday's air crash was the deadliest single incident for the U.S. military in Iraq. The previous worst was Nov. 15, 2003, when two Black Hawk helicopters trying to avoid fire over Mosul collided, killing 17 soldiers.
The U.S. death toll of 37 surpassed the war's previous deadliest day, March 23, 2003, when 28 service members were killed after the start of the U.S.-led invasion. That day included the fighting in which Pvt. Jessica Lynch was taken captive and members of her unit were killed.
Yesterday's loss of life was the worst for the U.S. military in a single day since 1989, when 47 sailors died in an explosion during a training exercise aboard the USS Iowa.
The helicopter that went down yesterday carried members of the 1st Marine Division and the 3rd Marine Air Wing, both based near San Diego. The aircraft crashed about 1:20 a.m. The mission was related to election preparations, Abizaid said, though the Marines declined to elaborate.
In an unrelated incident, four Marines believed to be from a Baltimore-based unit were killed in rebellious Anbar province, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. According to WABC reporter Jim Dolan, who was traveling with the unit, a vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade as a Marine convoy left the town of Haditha.
Without releasing identities or further details, the Marine Corps announced yesterday that four members of the Baltimore-based 4th Combat Engineer Battalion had been killed in combat in the province. The unit had been attached to the Houston-based 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines since its pre-deployment training in June at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Also yesterday, rebels ambushed a U.S. Army patrol near the northern town of Duluiyah, killing one soldier and wounding two others, the military said. Another soldier was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb in the Baghdad area, the military said.
Five days before the scheduled vote, insurgents launched attacks across a broad swath of central and northern Iraq, targeting political parties and likely polling centers. A suicide bomber detonated a fuel tanker at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Sinjar, southwest of Mosul, killing five people and injuring at least 20, the Associated Press reported.
Gunmen also attacked local offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Communist Party in Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killing a traffic police officer. Three car bombs in rapid succession also struck the town of Riyadh, north of Baghdad, killing at least five people, including three police, the AP reported.
The insurgency has proved larger than U.S. officials estimated a year ago, yet it has failed to gain mass popularity or spread much beyond four of Iraq's 18 provinces, Casey told reporters in Baghdad. The four troubled provinces, however, contain nearly half of Iraq's population.
Careful not to suggest any timetable for drawing down U.S. troops, Casey said circumstances in Iraq would dictate the number of U.S. forces. And he said the main factor in the deployment, beyond insurgent violence, was the performance and readiness of Iraqi forces.
"They are in the fight," Casey said of Iraqi police and soldiers, who now number nearly 130,000, though many are poorly trained and equipped. "We have made huge progress with the Iraqi security forces. ... You are going to see them all over Iraq on Election Day."
But Casey acknowledged that Iraqi police remain an especially weak link. And though the Iraqi army is up to eight full divisions, including units of the old Iraqi national guard, there is no command structure yet. There are few leaders at the brigade and division level.
Iraqi forces are not yet able to take over and "sustain the successes we have had" in combating the insurgency, Casey said. Until they are ready, he said, the United States will keep as many troops in Iraq as necessary.
"This is not a get-out-of-Dodge strategy," he said.
The United States has 150,000 troops in Iraq, including 120,000 Army soldiers. Army officials said Monday that they expect to keep their force at the same level for at least the next two years.
A top Iraqi general said yesterday that Iraqi security forces would be in charge by the end of this year and that foreign forces led by the Americans and British would retire from the cities and retreat to a small number of bases.
The comments by Gen. Babakir Zebari, the Defense Ministry's top military official, were reported by Agence France-Presse.
"Once we can control the security, we won't need them [the Americans] anymore. We'll need maybe one or two bases just to make sure no foreign countries try to invade," Zebari said.
A few American bases would serve as a security guarantee and reduce Iraq's defense costs, Zebari said.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
1. Haditha: Four Marines killed in combat
2. Dululyah: One soldier killer in ambush
3. Rutbah: 31 troops killed in helicopter crash
4. Baghdad area: One soldier killed by roadside bomb