U.S. military blames helicopter crash on enemy fire, says troop buildup now complete

By: LOLITA C. BALDOR - Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. helicopter that crashed and killed two soldiers in Diyala province Monday was shot down by enemy fire, a senior U.S. military official said Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the crash as part of a "complex" attack by enemy forces who first shot down the helicopter, then used roadside bombs to kill troops rushing to the site.

At the same time, Wiggins said that the full complement of the military buildup that President Bush ordered early this year is now in the war zone, with the recent arrival of an Army brigade in Baghdad and a Marine unit heading into the Anbar province in western Iraq.

Their movement into Iraq comes as the military is recording its third deadliest month since the war began. As of late Tuesday, there were 113 U.S. deaths in Iraq so far in May -- trailing only the 137 in November 2004 and the 135 in April 2004.

Military officials have consistently warned that it will be a bloody summer in Iraq as U.S. troops continue to press into Baghdad neighborhoods, coming into more contact with enemy forces. More than 3,400 U.S. service members have died since the war began.

After nearly five months, at a pace of one additional unit per month, there are now 20 combat brigades in Iraq, up from 15 when the buildup began. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops. Overall, the Pentagon said Wednesday there are 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number may still climb as more support troops move in.

Wiggins told Pentagon reporters that the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, recently arrived in Baghdad and will be fully operational by mid-June and that the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit heading to Anbar will also be ready for battle around the same time.

He said much of the Army force will continue to be concentrated in and around Baghdad but some may be stretched to other areas in the north and south where there have been spikes of violence.

Wiggins offered few details to illustrate what he optimistically called a "shift in momentum that comes with having additional ground forces on the ground." He pointed to a decline in overall deaths in Baghdad, from about 1,400 in January, to roughly 500 in each of the last two months, and noted what has been a drop in violence in western Iraq.

But he had no details on trends in the number of roadside bomb deaths, attacks against U.S. forces or other violence that could be used to measure the effects of the increased troop presence, particularly in Baghdad.

Providing further details on the helicopter crash and subsequent roadside attacks, Wiggins said the military believes the aircraft was brought down by small arms fire. He added that the roadside bomb that killed a response team headed to the crash site was not the newer, armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers.

Such a complex attack, he said, is "not new. That's something that's been out there, but it's something that they're continuing to refine."

In response, he said, the military continues to "adjust our flight maneuvering and our routes in order to not become predictable and in order to make it more difficult" for the enemy.

Two soldiers from Task Force Lightning were killed in the helicopter crash, and six others died in the roadside bomb ambush as they raced to the rescue.

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