Crew's fate unknown after helicopter crash

By wire services
Published April 2, 2006

BAGHDAD - A U.S. military helicopter crashed Saturday during a "combat air patrol" southwest of Baghdad, but the status of the crew was unknown, according to the American command.

Meanwhile, pressure mounted on Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside as the Shiite bloc's nominee for a second term, with some Shiites urging him to withdraw to break the deadlock over a new government amid increasing sectarian violence.

A U.S. statement said the helicopter went down about 5:30 p.m. during a combat patrol southwest of the capital but gave no further details, except to say that the fate of the crew was unknown. The statement did not identify the type of helicopter.

It was the first loss of a U.S. helicopter since three of them crashed in a 10-day period in January, killing 18 American military personnel. At least two of the helicopters were shot down.

The U.S. command also said a Marine was killed Friday during combat operations in Anbar province west of the capital.

At least 22 people were killed Saturday in violence in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq's two largest cities. Six others - all Shiite men - died Friday evening when gunmen opened fire on a minibus near Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, the town's mayor, Mohammed Maarouf, said.

The violence came as U.S. officials expressed increasing impatience with the slow pace of government talks following the Dec. 15 elections.

Talks among Iraqi political leaders have bogged down, prompting Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians to call for Jaafari's replacement. The Shiites get first crack at the prime minister's job because they are the largest bloc in Parliament.

Bush nods at warning to form government

WASHINGTON - President Bush has tacitly encouraged members of Congress to deliver strong warnings to deadlocked Iraqi leaders, including the message that if they fail to forge a new government, the schedule for withdrawing American troops could be sped up.

In a meeting March 28 with members of Congress, Bush told Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Democrats' senior member on military affairs, that it was "useful" and "helpful" that Levin told Iraqis during a recent visit to Baghdad that U.S. troops should remain only if progress was made.