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BAGHDAD — A spate of U.S. helicopter downings over several weeks involved several instances where insurgents appeared to use multiple small arms or heavy machine guns to target a single aircraft, as well as an arrangement of roadside bombs to delay or destroy rescue vehicles, a senior U.S. commander said this week.

The shoot-downs, however, did not suggest a significant change in enemy tactics or the appearance of specialized enemy “air defense cells,” Maj. Gen. Jim Simmons, deputy commander for support, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday.

Simmons also said it did not appear that a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that crashed Feb. 7 was struck by a shoulder-fired missile, although he did acknowledge that insurgents have used the missiles in the past to knock down coalition aircraft.

“They have employed SA-7, SA-14 and SA-16 missiles,” Simmons said. “They have had an effect on us in the past, yes. They have downed aircraft here in the past by shoulder-fired missiles.”

Simmons would not say how many aircraft had been lost to shoulder-fired missiles.

Five military and two civilian aircraft have gone down since Jan. 20, killing at least 23 people. At least three of the military aircraft were brought down by enemy fire.

The incidents have raised worries of new advances in enemy tactics or weaponry. But, Simmons, an Army aviator for 31 years and former commander of an Apache attack helicopter brigade, said the crashes were the result of a mix of mechanical problems and enemy gunfire and did not signal a need to limit U.S. helicopter flights in Iraq.

“We are continuing to fly,” Simmons said. “In my view, it’s still the safest way to get around Iraq. We have not canceled one mission, and there has been absolutely no reduction in rotary wing aircraft flight, nor will there be.”

The use of helicopters to ferry troops and supplies throughout Iraq has increased enormously over the past two years, owing mostly to the dangers of roadside bombs. In 2005, U.S. Army aircraft flew 240,000 hours. In 2006 they flew 334,000 hours, while this year they are expected to fly 400,000.

The increase in missions has also increased enemy opportunities to down aircraft. Simmons suggested that U.S. aircraft would be even more enticing targets now that coalition forces were increasing troop numbers as part of a plan to bring stability to Baghdad.

“We are engaged with a thinking enemy,” Simmons said. “This enemy understands, based on reporting, that we are in the process of implementing a new security plan. It is in their interest, from a strategic view, to engage and shoot down our aircraft.”

Since 2004, U.S. helicopters have been fired on about 100 times a month, mostly by small arms and heavy machine guns. The helicopters are actually struck by this fire roughly 17 times a month, Simmons said. Since 2003, the U.S. Army has lost 29 helicopters. That figure does not include Marine Corps aircraft — a figure that Simmons did not have. According to a tally by the Brookings Institution, a total of 57 U.S. military helicopters have crashed or been shot down over the course of the war.

In the majority of cases when aircraft are hit by enemy fire, the shooting occurs when helicopters stumble upon insurgents as they are hiding or retrieving weapons caches. Such was the case with Tarantula 2-6, a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down Jan. 25.

“We think they happened upon some guys perhaps who were putting weapons into a cache and they got lucky and hit the aircraft,” Simmons said. That incident, which occurred near Hit in western Anbar province, resulted in no casualties.

In other cases, helicopters take fire when they are themselves shooting at insurgents during firefights.

The first helicopter to be shot down on Jan. 20, a Black Hawk with the call sign EZ-40 was also shot by heavy machine-gun fire from several positions, one of which was on the back of a truck. Twelve personnel died in the attack, as did four militants who were killed by responding attack helicopters.

Simmons said that in addition to these gun emplacements, insurgents had planted roadside bombs along the rescue routes and delayed response vehicles. The use of roadside bombs was also a feature of the downing of an Apache attack helicopter with the call sign Crazy Horse 0-8 on Feb. 2, in which two crewmembers died.


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