A militant group in Iraq says it shot down a civilian helicopter that crashed near Baghdad Thursday, killing all 11 people on board. The three crewmembers were Bulgarian, and Bulgaria's Defense Ministry also says the helicopter was shot down, but the U.S. Defense Department says the cause of the crash is under investigation.
The coalition in Iraq says the helicopter went down in the early afternoon near Baghdad's airport. A spokesman in Baghdad says the helicopter was a Russian-build MI-8 that was operated by civilian contractors. The aircraft was carrying security guards from the Blackwater USA company, which provides security for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Most of the dead were reported to be Americans.
As a civilian aircraft, the helicopter apparently did not have any armaments or technological means to counter any weapon that might have been fired at it.
Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters at the Pentagon he could not confirm the claims that the helicopter was shot down.
"We're still learning some details," he said. "There's going to be an investigation by the Iraqi civil authorities, civil aviation authorities, that we, the multi-national force, will assist with. They'll go in and investigate and learn more in the immediate future and then learn as far as causes in the longer term future. And there's no early indications as to what happened, how it crashed."
Mr. Di Rita also indicated that the U.S. and coalition military will no longer take the leading role in investigating events like the civilian helicopter crash, or Wednesday's reports about bodies found in the Tigris River and at a stadium northwest of Baghdad.
"We will not be necessarily - and when I say 'we' [I mean] the multi-national forces - not necessarily going to be the first or best source of information as we go forward in Iraq because there's now an Iraqi government with police and with security forces and with intelligence apparatus, and we're going to, to some extent, like we do in other countries be dependent on information that we learn from the Iraqi government or in conjunction with the Iraqi government," he added.
Mr. Di Rita said the new Iraqi security forces, which he said are now 155,000 strong, will be in a better position to investigate such incidents. The U.S. military has about 135,000 troops in Iraq, including intelligence units, and U.S. military officials say their forces are still much more capable than most of the Iraqi forces. Still, they say that because of the language and cultural gap, the Iraqi forces are better able to handle investigations and develop intelligence sources.
The Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that there has been an increase in insurgent attacks during the last two weeks. But he said the overall trend is downward, and that American commanders in Iraq believe progress is being made in fighting the insurgency and training the Iraqi forces to play a greater role in the effort. In Iraq on Thursday, two U.S. marines were killed by a roadside bomb near the town of Ramadi, west of the capital.
Also on Thursday, Iraqi politicians continued to negotiate over the makeup of a new government. They had hoped to present the government Thursday, but postponed any announcement until at least Sunday. The Iraqi branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi late Wednesday.