US helicopter is shot down as hostility grows

An American Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by guerrillas near Tikrit yesterday, injuring one soldier, in an incident which shows the increasing sophistication of attacks on American forces in Iraq.

Two helicopters were flying in formation, a common sight around Tikrit, when the second was hit, probably by a rocket-propelled grenade. The helicopter stayed airborne, then crashed into a field where it burst into flames. It is only the second time a US helicopter has been shot down in Iraq since George Bush declared major combat ended on 1 May.

US officials have been warning that many anti-aircraft missiles were still available in Iraq, in addition to RPG launchers, often among the arsenal of farmers. RPGs and roadside bombs are commonly used by guerrillas in attacks on US patrols and convoys.

US forces said a civilian convoy was hit by a roadside bomb and raked by small arms and RPG fire near Fallujah yesterday, killing three civilians and wounding two. A wounded American engineer working for European Landmine Solutions, a British-based private contractor, was taken to the local hospital, where doctors said an Iraqi female translator and a security guard died in the attack.

Resistance to the US occupation is centred on the Sunni Muslim towns and cities on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, north of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein was born near Tikrit, and enjoyed strong support in the region. The so-called Sunni Triangle, where US troops frequently come under attack, has extended further north in the past month, with an increasing number of incidents in and around Mosul and Kirkuk.

Earlier yesterday Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, visited soldiers in Tikrit, and praised Iraqis who were joining the defence forces. He said: "These young Iraqis are stepping forward to fight for their country along with us. It is a wonderful success story."

But people in the Sunni area show antipathy towards the occupation. In towns such as Hawaija, west of Kirkuk, and Baiji further south, walls are covered with pro-Saddam slogans. Sheikhs who were formerly friendly to US commanders say their lives are now in danger.

Even in the Sunni district favoured by the former Iraqi regime there were many who, at the time, were relieved by the fall of Saddam. But the lack of jobs, dismissal of former Baathists, disbandment of the army and anger at US raids, patrols and checkpoints has led to a change in mood with many asserting they were better off under the regime.

With the holy month of Ramadan about to begin, commanders are warning US troops that it would be insensitive to smoke, eat or swig water in front of Iraqis who are fasting and abstaining from tobacco from dawn to sunset.

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