Insurgents hiding in a date palm grove shot down a Chinook helicopter carrying dozens of American troops Sunday, killing 16 and wounding 20 in the deadliest single strike against U.S. forces since the war against Iraq began last March. Witnesses said the attackers used missiles — a sign of the increasing sophistication of Iraq's elusive anti-U.S. fighters.
CBS News Correspondent David Hawkins reports that while there have been warnings that Iraqi insurgents were planning something big, it is not at all clear that Sunday's attacks were part of that plan.
Leaflets that turned up in Baghdad did call for a day of uprising against U.S. forces, but the date of that jihad was supposed to be Monday, Nov. 3. Warnings in Iraq on Friday said new attacks against U.S. forces would involve "modern and advanced weapons."
An unsigned note posted Friday at mosques in Fallujah, where anti-American sentiment runs high, urged people to avoid public places over the weekend. "Special operations against occupation forces might be carried out by using modern and advanced methods," the leaflet said.
In other developments:
The downed copter was one of two Chinooks flying out in formation from an air base in Habbaniyah, about 10 miles from the crash site, carrying troops to Baghdad enroute to long-awaited two week-long leaves from combat duty.
The U.S. military would not confirm that the aircraft was struck by a missile, but a spokesman, Col. William Darley, said witnesses reported seeing "missile trails."
Witnesses say two missiles streaked into the sky and slammed into the rear of the aircraft. The helicopter crashed in flames in farmers' fields west of Baghdad.
Hours later, thick smoke rose from the blackened, smoldering hulk as U.S. soldiers swarmed over the crash site, evacuating the injured, retrieving evidence and cordoning off the area.
Some villagers proudly showed off blackened pieces of the Chinook's wreckage to arriving reporters. Though a few villagers tried to help, many celebrated.
"This was a new lesson from the resistance, a lesson to the greedy aggressors," one Fallujah resident, who would not give his name, said of the helicopter downing. "They'll never be safe until they get out of our country," he said of the Americans.
Like past attacks on U.S. forces and a string of suicide bombings that killed dozens in Baghdad the past week, U.S. coalition officials blamed either Saddam loyalists or foreign fighters for the strike outside Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance to the U.S. occupation.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, repeated demands that Syria and Iran prevent fighters from crossing their borders into Iraq.
"They could do a much better job of helping us seal that border and keeping terrorist out of Iraq," said Bremer, speaking on CNN.
U.S. officials have been warning of the danger of shoulder-fired missiles, thousands of which are now scattered from Saddam's arsenals, and such missiles are believed to have downed two U.S. copters since May 1. Those two crashes - of smaller helicopters - wounded one American.
By targeting U.S. aircraft, the insurgents in Iraq stand a greater chance of killing sizable numbers of Americans in a single strike.
The death toll Sunday surpasses one of the deadliest single attacks during the Iraq war: the March 23 ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company, in which 11 soldiers were killed, nine were wounded and seven captured. A total of 28 Americans around Iraq - including the casualties from the ambush - died on that day, the deadliest for U.S. troops during the Iraq war. This Sunday's combined death toll was 19.
In Washington Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented on the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq, saying the downed helicopter is part of the tragic but inevitable cost of waging a long war.
"In a long, hard war, we're going to have tragic days, as this is," said Rumsfeld on ABC. "But they're necessary. They're part of a war that's difficult and complicated."
"There doesn't seem to be the sense of urgency, the failure to tell the folks we've got to lock down this country quickly, build up the Iraqi forces and bring in NATO and bring in other folks and give up some authority," commented Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Monday on CBS News' The Early Show. "I mean, we act like Iraq is some kind of prize that we won."
The U.S. deaths Sunday brought to at least 139 the number of American soldiers killed by hostile fire since Mr. Bush declared an end to combat on May 1.
Around 377 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Daily attacks against U.S. forces have increased in the last three weeks from an average of the mid-20s to 33.
Biden said Iraq is worth the high cost, however.
"If we lose the peace in Iraq, that entire part of the world becomes chaos," Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told co-anchor Harry Smith. "You have Iran becoming a powerful force there surrounded by two failed states, Afghanistan and Iraq. You have the end of any possibility of modernization in that part of the world and you may see Pakistan fall."