U.S. suffers bloodiest day

MOSUL, Iraq — Two Black Hawk helicopters collided and crashed Saturday night, killing 17 American soldiers in the U.S. military’s worst single loss of life since the Iraq war began.

One helicopter smashed into the roof of a house, witnesses said, and there were reports that one of the aircraft had been hit by ground fire. Five soldiers were injured and one was missing, the military said.

As the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed the 400 mark, the Iraqi Governing Council endorsed a U.S. plan Saturday that would create a provisional government by June. The transfer of power would provide Washington with an exit strategy in the face of escalating guerrilla warfare.

The two Black Hawks from the 101st Airborne Division went down in the Borsa residential neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.

One soldier at the scene said he heard that one of the helicopters had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade before it crashed, but a U.S. military spokesman said such reports were "at best speculative."

A written statement from the U.S. command said one helicopter was carrying a quick reaction force and the other was ferrying soldiers on a transport mission to northern Iraq.

"The cause of the incidents are under investigation," the statement said. "We will not speculate on the cause of these crashes."

Before the crash, the U.S. military’s deadliest incident was the downing of a Chinook transport helicopter on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. A Black Hawk was also shot down on Nov. 7, killing all six soldiers on board.

There were days early in the war in which more soldiers died, but they were spread out over several attacks or accidents.

Earlier in the day, a 1st Armored Division soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The crash put the number of American casualties since the March invasion at 417.

The crash occurred about 6:30 p.m. after sundown, but both pilots were qualified for night flying, the military said. The 101st Airborne Division is based in Fort Campbell, Ky.

The statement said the site was secured by U.S. troops, Iraqi police and firefighters.

One witness, Nafe Younis, said he was sitting on the roof of his house when he saw the rotor blades of the two helicopters hit each other.

One of the helicopters then "hit into the house, and a few minutes later it went ablaze," said Younis, who lives across the street from where one of the helicopters crashed.

As attacks against American occupation forces grow more sophisticated and deadly, Washington has become more concerned with handing power over to a new Iraqi government. The Bush administration has dropped its insistence that a constitution be drawn up and elections held before the transfer of power takes place.

Iraq’s Governing Council, which has acted as Iraq’s interim administration since it was appointed in July, on Saturday announced a set of deadlines that would give Iraq a provisional national assembly by May, a transitional administration with full sovereign powers in June and an elected government before the end of 2005.

With the return of sovereignty in June, the U.S. military occupation will formally end, although American forces are expected to remain in Iraq under a new arrangement to be worked out with the Iraqis.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. troops will not withdraw anytime soon.

"The timetable or the way ahead that the Governing Council has been describing relates to the governance aspects of the country and not to the security aspects," Rumsfeld said in Japan. "That’s on a separate track."

Until a constitution is drafted and adopted, a basic law will be drawn up by the Governing Council and take effect in February.

The law, according to an official statement, would establish a democratic and federal state that "respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people with the guarantee of the right of other religions and sects."

It will enshrine respect for human rights and ensure equality of members of the country’s diverse religious and ethnic groups.

In other developments Saturday:

  • The number of Italian military personnel killed in Wednesday’s suicide attack in the southern city of Nasiriyah reached 19 Saturday when a severely wounded soldier was pronounced dead in Kuwait. Two of the dead were Italian civilians.

  • The remains of 18 Italians killed in Iraq arrived home Saturday for a painful few days of mourning before a state funeral — a solemn tribute that was testimony to Italy’s sense of loss over its worst military disaster since World War II.

  • Gunmen killed a translator working for Mosul’s municipal administration together with his son.

  • A Portuguese journalist abducted by gunmen in southern Iraq was released Saturday. Carlos Raleiras, a journalist with Lisbon-based radio TSF, said he was set free at a roadside about 36 hours after being abducted near Basra. He told TSF he was not harmed.

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