Al Qaeda behind chooper attacks in Iraq

Bill Gertz:

Two or three al Qaeda terrorist cells in Iraq are behind the recent series of helicopter shootdowns, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps, Iraq, told reporters that the downing of several helicopters involved common tactics, techniques and procedures used by terrorists.
"We're trying to understand what those are, learn about it so we can protect our aircraft, but more importantly, try to go after the cells," the three-star general said. "I believe they're al Qaeda-associated cells."
Eight helicopters in Iraq have been shot down or have crash-landed after ground fire since Jan. 20. Some of the attacks involved shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
Military officials at first sought to blame the downings on mechanical problems, but later information revealed most were hit by enemy fire. One attack on a UH-60 Black Hawk north of Baghdad resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers. A third Black Hawk was shot down Wednesday and Gen. Odierno said initial reports indicate "enemy fire" was the cause.
"We are aggressively examining the conditions of each incident and adapting tactics and techniques to address the issue," Gen. Odierno said, noting that the military is increasing the use of helicopters because most casualties are occurring from improvised bomb attacks on ground vehicles.
Two persons linked to the helicopter attacks are being questioned, including one who took part in one of the shootdowns. The terrorist "admitted that he was involved in one of them," Gen. Odierno said.
"And we've done a couple of operations over the last few nights, and I think we've also gotten into another part of a cell who might have shot down another aircraft, one of the aircraft. So we continue to work this extremely hard," he said.
The aircraft attacks were carried out from "ambush sites that were set up by some of our foes," Gen. Odierno said, noting that "I think they've probably been trying to do this for a long time, but my guess is we have a cell out there that's somewhat effective."
The increase in the helicopters attacks comes as U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a major, months-long program to pacify Baghdad, where much of the insurgency against the new Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition forces is taking place.
Gen. Odierno gives some hints of the new tactics employed by the enemy. The attacks are similar to an ambush, but the target and the kill zone is in the air instead of on a road. One of the things needed to avoid these ambushes is varying both the route and the altitude of the helicopters. They should also expect attacks when coming to the aid of ground units or choppers that have been downed. These give the enemy an opportunity to set up kill zones on the avenue of approach.


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