Sea Knight helicopter crashes northwest of Iraqi capitol

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A Sea Knight helicopter crashed Wednesday northwest of Baghdad, killing all seven people on board, an official said, the fifth chopper lost in Iraq in just over two weeks.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Baghdad security operation has begun, said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged the plan to pacify the violence-ridden capital had been slow to start and had allowed insurgents time to step up attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis in recent weeks.

The CH-46 helicopter did not appear to have been hit by hostile fire, a senior U.S. defense official said, although 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 and all seven people aboard had died.

The twin-rotor helicopter was operated by Marines, and other Marine aircraft were in visual contact at the time it went down, the U.S. official said, but he did not know whether a distress signal was communicated by radio.

The helicopter went down about 20 miles northwest of the capital, Caldwell said, although he declined to comment on casualties or give a cause for the crash.

“A quick reaction force is on site and the investigation is going on as we speak,” he told reporters in Baghdad.

U.S. forces sealed off the area and helicopters buzzed overhead as flames and a huge plume of black smoke billowed from the wreckage in an open field, not far from a squat concrete farmhouse.

U.S. military officials have said the Baghdad operation began to be put in place when President Bush announced it Jan. 10, and Caldwell said Wednesday it was “ongoing as we speak.”

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