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Portable Missiles Remain Significant Threat to US Aircraft in Iraq - 2003-11-03


U.S. military personnel have begun hauling away the wreckage of the helicopter shot down Sunday in Iraq. Sixteen American servicemen were killed and 20 injured in the crash. It is believed the helicopter was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Such missiles remain a significant threat to coalition aircraft.

While the investigation into Sunday's downing of a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter continues, it is widely believed the helicopter was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. Witnesses reported seeing a missile trail moments before the helicopter went down.

The search for weapons in Iraq, including surface-to-air missiles, has been exhaustive. U.S. military officials in Baghdad have said the remaining arsenal of the ousted regime is much larger than initially believed. And, they say, they have not been able to locate a large number of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said Saturday that hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition, purchased by ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, remain unaccounted for.

"He did not spend much money on hospitals, or schools, or his people. But he did spend billions of dollars on weapons," said Mr. Bremer. "We have so far found 650,000 tons of ammunition in this country. We believe there is probably another 350,000 tons we have not found."

In an effort to retrieve shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the U.S. military has been offering $500 for each missile returned. Military officials in Baghdad say more than $100,000 has been paid for returned weapons, including more than 350 shoulder-fired missiles, most which were Russian-made.

But such weapons sell for as much as $5,000 on the black market, and military officials say they believe hundreds of them remain unaccounted for.

They are easily smuggled, weighing about 13 kgs. and are less than two meters long.

The shoulder-fired missiles represent a significant threat to coalition aircraft. Last Thursday, coalition forces announced that, for the past several weeks, aircraft landing at Baghdad International Airport had taken weapons fire from the ground, although no aircraft were reported hit. The missiles still unaccounted for are a main reason the airport is only allowing a limited number of civilian flights.

The U.S. Army helicopter that was shot down Sunday was en route to Baghdad International Airport, flying west of the capital near the town of Fallujah.

Since May 1, two other U.S. helicopters took ground fire, although there were no deaths as a result of those attacks.

Coalition officials say policies regarding military aircraft over Iraq will be reviewed.

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