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Insurgents Attack U.S. Black Hawk Copter

Insurgents Attack U.S. Black Hawk Copter

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TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- Guerrillas fired small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter after it came down Saturday in a field near Tikrit, wounding one soldier and causing the craft to explode in flames and spew a column of black smoke, the U.S. military said.

Near Fallujah, three civilians were killed and two wounded when their convoy came under fire. An American engineer and an Iraqi security guard said U.S. troops shot at their vehicles, but the military denied that.

Amid the ongoing violence, U.S military officials prepared for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins in Iraq on Monday. For weeks, chaplains have been training troops to be sensitive to Muslim religious traditions.

In the incident near Fallujah, three SUVs of the European Landmine Solutions, a British-based private contractor, were hit by gunfire, according to an American engineer with the firm, David Rasmussen, who was hospitalized with wounds.

Asked where the shots came from, Rasmussen replied: "from the USA."

The Iraqi security guard traveling with the convoy, Laith Yousef, gave the same account.

"We were the target of an attack by the Americans," Yousef said. "They shot at our car. The translator burned to death in the car. A man with us was killed. He was going to get married next week."

A U.S. command spokesman in Baghdad denied troops fired at the convoy, saying coalition forces went to the secure the area after the attack and evacuated the wounded.

Lt. Col. Charles Hardy, spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, which is responsible for the area, said the civilian convoy turned around after a bomb exploded ahead of it, and then was hit by another improvised bomb, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.

"U.S. forces arrived after the attack and treated the wounded," he said. "This was not initiated by our forces."

Near Fallujah, Iraqi civilians reported a roadside bombing Saturday night in the town of Khaldiyah. They said several U.S. soldiers appeared to have been wounded; the U.S. command had no immediate information.

The Black Hawk came down at about 4 p.m. in a field near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Both it and Fallujah lie inside the "Sunni Triangle," which sees multiple attacks every day against U.S. forces. The region, in central Iraq north of Baghdad, is where the ousted dictator drew his strongest support; his loyalists are now believed to be leading resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the helicopter landed for undetermined reasons.

A preliminary report by U.S. soldiers, however, said the helicopter was apparently downed by ground fire. U.S. officials have been warning that thousands of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles remain unaccounted for after the fall of Saddam's regime.

Only one U.S. helicopter has been confirmed shot down by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1. A U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter was shot down June 12 by hostile fire in western Iraq. The craft's two crewmembers were rescued.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, on a three-day tour of Iraq, was in Tikrit earlier Saturday visiting a U.S. garrison.

Before leaving, he told commanders he was hopeful American troops would get more money to train Iraqis to assume a greater role in security as they fight resistance forces.

"These young Iraqis are stepping forward to fight for their country along with us," Wolfowitz said. "It is a wonderful success story that speaks volumes."

Iraqis who work with coalition forces have been frequently targeted by insurgents opposed to the U.S. occupation. On Saturday, officials said the coalition-backed police chief of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah was shot to death.

Also Saturday, U.S. forces reopened a major bridge over the Tigris River to ease transportation in the capital, Baghdad. And the commander of allied forces in Iraq said Saturday the country's security problems were "manageable."

"All these security problems are in our view manageable and with the growing help of Iraqis will be dealt with effectively," said Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command.

Meanwhile, in preparation for Ramadan, coalition officials moved to ease conditions for Baghdad's 5 million people by abolishing the nighttime curfew in effect since the fall of the city in April and reopening the Tigris bridge.

The Islamic month of fasting begins with the sighting of a new moon and lasts for four weeks. Muslims must abstain from food, drink and sex during the day, but evenings are marked by lavish meals and social gatherings lasting far into the night.

"The curfew can be lifted due to the reduction in the crime rate in the city and the overall improvement in the security situation," the U.S.-appointed Baghdad city council statement said. "Despite some highly publicized attacks by terrorists and supporters of the former regime, the overall security situation in Baghdad has improved."

Most Iraqi cities no longer have a curfew.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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