Iraqis shoot down third American helicopter

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An American army helicopter was shot down near the militantly nationalist town of Fallujah yesterday, the third to be downed by guerrillas in the area in two weeks .

An American army helicopter was shot down near the militantly nationalist town of Fallujah yesterday, the third to be downed by guerrillas in the area in two weeks.

In the centre of Fallujah itself, three men in a car and an elderly woman were killed when US soldiers returned fire after two rockets were fired at them.

Earlier, hundreds of demonstrators had taken to the streets after a newly wed 17-year-old woman was detained. They chanted "Bush, you coward" and "Free our woman". She was later released. The soldiers had arrested her because they were looking for a relative who they suspected might know the whereabouts of Khamis Sarhan, the leader of the Baath party in Fallujah under Saddam Hussein.

Maher Turki, the brother-in-law of the woman, who was not identified, said: "The girl was alone so they took her because they know our weakness. When they take our honour they know we will come to them." He added, however, that his sister-in-law had not been mistreated.

Soon after the demonstration, a US patrol appeared and was attacked near the mayor's office, an abandoned building with its walls blackened by smoke since it was burnt down last year. In what has become a common pattern after US forces are attacked, four people ­ a woman on a balcony and three men in a car ­ were killed by retaliatory fire. In Baghdad on Monday night, a bomb exploded at a checkpoint, killing a US soldier in a Humvee. Another soldier shot dead a 10-year-old boy, Mustafa Jamal Shaikhly, and the driver of the car he was in, and badly wounded his mother and aunt.

Iraqis accuse the US army of randomly using its massive firepower, leading to frequent civilian casualties which in turn feeds the insurgency.

The loss of the American AH-64 Apache aircraft, which was shot down near Habbaniyah, 12 miles west of Fallujah, is part of a worrying trend for the army. The two crew members were uninjured, but the downing of the Apache demonstrates the guerrillas' capacity over the past three months to hit US military helicopters with ground-to-air missiles or rocket-propelled grenades.

Last week, a medical evacuation helicopter crashed near Fallujah after being hit by ground fire, killing all nine soldiers on board. On 2 January, a Kiowa Warrior helicopter ­ all US military helicopters are named after Native American tribes ­ was brought down, killing the pilot.

The worst single loss in the area came last November when a Chinook helicopter was hit by a missile as it passed over date palms and green fields beside the Euphrates, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 21. At the time, it was the biggest single loss of American lives in Iraq.

US helicopter pilots at the old Iraqi airforce base at Habbaniyah are conscious that the loss of a helicopter has political repercussions in the US in a way which losses on the ground do not. One pilot said, that just as Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s tried to find the moment when Russian helicopters were vulnerable, so local insurgents study the movements of helicopters around Fallujah. "The helicopters fly low at 100 feet, so by the time anybody on the ground can react, they are gone," said Specialist Stephen Sadeo, standing beside a helicopter which had just landed. A device on top of the helicopter prevents heat-seeking missiles locking on. "It works 85 per cent of the time," he said.

The Kiowa helicopters form taskforce Wolfpack, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, and are mostly used for reconnaissance and guarding convoys. The pilots said they did not know how often they were attacked during the day, but at night they could see the tracer fire. The helicopters fly in pairs and an attack by ground-to-air missiles is usually made on the second helicopter, which is more vulnerable.

Captain Scott Jackman, a troop commander, said the most difficult part of the job was identifying people and vehicles on the ground. "Half the vehicles you see are white pick-ups and the people are often about the same height and weight," he said. Warrant officer Doug Dolson added: "You can't tell who is the guy shooting at you and who is going about his business."

Helicopters in Iraq do not play the same role as they did in Vietnam, where they were used to transport infantry assault units. In Iraq, where the enemy relies on roadside bombs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, helicopters are used for observation and cordoning off areas.

The Wolfpack pilot who died was Aaron Weaver, who had fought as an infantryman in Mogadishu during the disastrous helicopter raid by US Rangers in 1992. He arrived in Iraq after a prolonged battle against cancer and was on his way to a hospital for a blood test when a missile brought down his helicopter near Fallujah, killing all on board.

The unit's pilots admit that they have had no real contact with Iraqis. Captain Jackman speculated that "75 per cent of the people in the country are happy, 10 per cent are mad and 15 per cent are indifferent".

Major Thomas Von Eschenbach, the executive officer of the unit, said they had been told to divide the insurgents into "former regime loyalists" and "foreign fighters".

They are not categories that have much meaning in the turmoil on the streets of Fallujah, with its riots and attacks on US troops. The capture of Saddam has had little impact on the resistance, and the massive firepower of the American ground forces is acting as a recruiting sergeant for the guerrillas.

* President George Bush, seeking to mend relations with Canada, said yesterday that it would be eligible for a second round of American-financed reconstruction contracts in Iraq that the administration valued at about $4.5bn (£2.4bn).