'31 killed' as Marine helicopter crashes in Iraq

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The Independent Online

A total of 31 people were killed when a US Marine helicopter transporting troops to western Iraq crashed today in the western desert. There was no immediate confirmation whether it was an accident or the helicopter had been shot down.

A total of 31 people were killed when a US Marine helicopter transporting troops to western Iraq crashed today in the western desert. There was no immediate confirmation whether it was an accident or the helicopter had been shot down.

It represents the largest single loss of life for the US since the start of the conflict.

A Pentagon source said the helicopter was a CH-53 Sea Stallion, which is normally configured to carry 37 passengers, but can take up to 55.

The helicopter went down near the town of Rutbah, about 220 miles west of Baghdad, while conducting security operations, the military said in a statement. The aircraft was transporting personnel from the 1st Marine Division.

A search and rescue team has reached the site and an investigation into what caused the crash is underway, the military said.

The US military has lost at least 33 helicopters since the March 2003 start of the Iraq conflict, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. At least 20 of them were brought down by hostile fire, the institution said.

The deadliest single incident involving US troops so far took place in November 2003, when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in Mosul after colliding while trying to avoid ground fire, killing 17 US soldiers and wounding five.

Earlier that month a Chinook transport helicopter was shot down by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile near Fallujah, killing 16 American soldiers and wounding 26.

Last month, a suicide bomb exploded at a mess tent in a base near Mosul, killing 22 people including 14 US soldiers and three American contractors.

* The US military confirmed that four US Marines had been killed in combat in western Iraq. The four troops from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed in action "while conducting combat operations against enemy forces." a military statement said.

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