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Seven people were killed when a Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight went down early Wednesday northwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It’s the fifth American helicopter to crash in Iraq since Jan. 20.

While the previous three military helicopters — plus one belonging to a private security contracting firm — were shot down, a senior U.S. defense official said the CH-46 helicopter did not appear to have been hit by hostile fire.

However, an Iraqi air force officer said it was downed by an anti-aircraft missile and an al-Qaida-linked Sunni group claimed responsibility for the downing.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way, said the crash appeared to have been related to mechanical problems.

He said the aircraft was operated by Marines, and other Marine aircraft were in visual contact at the time it went down, but he did not know whether a distress signal was communicated by radio.

The twin-rotor CH-46 went down about 20 miles northwest of the capital, said chief U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV.

“A quick-reaction force is on site, and the investigation is going on as we speak. It would probably be inappropriate for me to talk about whether or not there are or are not casualties,” Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad.

Wire service reports quoted witnesses in the area as saying the helicopter had been shot down.

“The helicopter was flying and passed over us, then we heard the firing of a missile,” said Mohammad al-Janabi, a farmer who told The Associated Press he was a half mile from the wreckage. “The helicopter then turned into a ball of fire. It flew in a circle twice, then it went down.”

The Sea Knight is a twin-rotored aircraft similar to the Army’s Chinook; both are manufactured by Boeing. The helicopter went down in the Sheik Amir area. U.S. Marine units are stationed in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and their aircrews rarely fly during the daylight hours.

Later Wednesday, an al- Qaida-linked Sunni group claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter.

The Islamic State in Iraq, described as an umbrella group of Sunni insurgent groups, made the claim in an Internet posting.

“By God’s grace, the downing of a helicopter of the crusaders was accomplished on Wednesday morning,” the statement read in part. The group also has claimed responsibility for at least two of the four helicopters shot down since Jan. 20. A total of 19 Americans — including five security contractors — were killed in the previous four incidents. The shoot-downs have prompted American military officials to look into their flight operations.

“At this point and time, I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us or if there’s been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy, which is what the investigation will do,” Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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