It looked increasingly likely that the 10 servicemen on board the Hercules C-130 were killed by insurgents, but details of the crash were shrouded in mystery as ministers faced questions about the plane's mission.
The escalation in the insurgents' threat, if confirmed by crash investigators at the site, will cause alarm. The Hercules aircraft are the "work-horses" of the British and American forces, and are regularly used to ferry special forces and their equipment, and even VIPs on visits to Baghdad and Basra, where British troops are based. Coalition troops had feared that a missile attack would bring down one of the slow transport planes and there was alarm that counter-measures fitted to them appeared to have failed.
Searching questions were also being asked why 10 British servicemen were being flown to a US base in the north of Iraq.
The nine members of the RAF on board belonged to a special squadron that works with the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service. The soldier who was also killed is believed to have been a member of the SAS. They were heading for a huge US base in Balad, which is used as an outpost for the SAS.
Wreckage was strewn across the crash site 20 miles north of Baghdad, suggesting a mid-air explosion had occurred. British ground troops searching for the bodies were trying to secure the area, which is in hostile territory. Footage on al-Jazeera television appeared to support the insurgents' claims. It showed a remote-controlled mechanism apparently firing two missiles at a plane, although the authenticity of the film could not be verified. There was also footage of parts of a burning plane spread over a wide area including a large section of an engine.
The video was issued by the "1920 Revolution Brigade". However, another Islamist group, Ansar al-Sunna had earlier claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane. British officers in Iraq last night said that little could be deduced from the footage. The missiles featured appeared to be surface-to-air weapons.
Insurgents threatened a "spectacular" attack and senior MPs said the timing coinciding with the elections suggested strongly that the air-
craft was brought down by a missile. One senior Liberal Democrat figure said: "The US flooded Afghanistan with Stinger missiles and there are plenty of them around. It is highly likely the plane was brought down by one of their missiles."
The attack would increase pressure on the coalition forces. Most roads in the country, especially in the Sunni area of central Iraq, are highly vulnerable to insurgent attacks, and convoys are regularly ambushed. This has forced US and British forces to rely on aircraft for moving troops and supplies.
Senior military sources in Iraq described the gravity of the situation. One officer said: "If we lose freedom of air movement it will be a massive problem. The investigation will conclude what exactly happened, but at the moment it looks more and more like enemy action. The C-130 has anti- missile defences, so this is quite puzzling. We are taking the precaution of carrying out a security review because this is Iraq and you cannot take chances."
Labour MPs speculated that the men who were killed were engaged in operations along the Iran border. But a senior MoD official said: "It was a routine operational flight from Baghdad international airport to Balad. They were transporting people. We don't comment on special forces operations normally but this was a routine operational sortie."
Defence experts said the insurgents may have patched together missiles systems to carry out the attack. Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "If the al-Jazeera footage was genuine, it shows that an aircraft flying at altitude has been shot down by what looks like some sort of spliced-together weapons system.
"This would be an unprecedented and catastrophic event. Hitherto we have not seen the insurgents capable of launching such an attack."
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said the names of the deceased would not be released until after noon today at their families' request. He said: "Our hearts go out to those that we lost on Sunday. We mourn them and we mourn those brave and dedicated servicemen who were on the aircraft with them.
"I am aware that there is a great deal of speculation about what caused the crash, not least because of the video purporting to be of a missile shooting down an aircraft."
One of the men was identified as Paul Pardoel, a 35-year-old navigator. Flt Lt Pardoel, who born in Melbourne, Australia, had been living with his family near the base at RAF Lyneham. He had been with the RAF's 47 Squadron, a unit known for working with special forces. His father, John, 78, said: "He was the nearest thing you find to an ideal child."Reuse content