updated 1/23/2007 11:33:28 PM ET 2007-01-24T04:33:28

A U.S. security company helicopter crashed Tuesday as it flew over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood in the central Baghdad where insurgents and Iraqi security troops fought a prolonged gunbattle, and a U.S. official said five American civilians on board were killed.

A senior Iraqi military official said the aircraft was shot down, but this was disputed by a U.S. military official in Washington. The Iraqi said the helicopter was hit by a machine gunner over the Fadhil neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, while the American official said there was no indication in initial reports that the aircraft, owned by Blackwater USA, had been shot down.

A second U.S. official, in Baghdad, said the five killed were Americans. All the officials demanded anonymity because the details had not been made public. The Americans said they did not know what caused the aircraft to crash.

The U.S. official in Baghdad had said there was no information to substantiate reports that the bodies had been shot.

The New York Times reported the helicopter went down as it came under attack and plummeted to the pavement through a tangle of electrical wires, but it was unclear if the crash resulted from gunfire, the wires or an effort to land.

Shot on the ground?
Quoting unnamed American officials, the newspaper said the helicopter’s four-man crew was killed along with a gunner on a second Blackwater helicopter. It said one military official said that at least four of the victims had suffered gunshot wounds to the head, raising the prospect that some of them had been shot on the ground.

Witnesses in the Fadhil neighborhood told The Associated Press that they saw the helicopter go down after gunmen on the ground opened fire, possibly striking pilot or co-pilot or both. Accounts varied, but all were consistent that at least one person operating the aircraft had been shot and badly hurt before the crash.

The helicopter was believed to have been flying escort above a VIP convoy on the ground as it headed away from the heavily fortified Green Zone to an undisclosed destination.

A spokeswoman for Blackwater USA, which is based in far northeastern North Carolina, declined to comment Tuesday. “We really don’t have any information for you yet,” said spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. The company provides security for State Department officials in Iraq, trains military units from around the world, and works for corporate clients.

Katy Helvenston, mother of Scott Helvenston, a Blackwater employee who died in March 2004, said Tuesday’s crash “just breaks my heart.”

“I’m so sick of these kids dying,” she said.

Helvenston was killed, along with Jerko “Jerry” Zovko, Wesley J.K. Batalona, and Michael R. Teague, when a frenzied mob of insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were escorting through Fallujah. The insurgents burned and mutilated the guards and strung two of the bodies from a bridge. The gruesome scene was filmed and broadcast worldwide, leading the U.S. military to launch a three-week siege of Fallujah.

2nd chopper crash in four days
Before Tuesday’s crash, at least 22 employees of Blackwater Security Consulting or Blackwater USA had died in Iraq as a result of war-related violence, according to the Web site iCasualties.org, which tracks foreign troop fatalities in Iraq. Of those, 20 were Americans, and two were Polish.

The crash of the small surveillance helicopter, believed to be a version of the Hughes Defender that was developed during the Vietnam War, was the second associated with the U.S. war effort in Iraq in four days.

A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The American military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was shot out of the air by a surface-to-air missile.

Civilian aircraft that serve Baghdad International Airport use avoidance techniques that included landing in a steep, circular descent from nearly straight overhead the runways. Takeoffs are achieved with the same technique until passenger jets are out of missile range.

Blackwater company hit again
The Blackwater aircraft was at least the 14th helicopter to go down since the war began in March 2003. The worst incident occurred Jan. 26, 2005, when a U.S. transport helicopter crashed in a sandstorm in western Iraq, killing 30 Marines and a U.S. sailor.

Khalid Mohammed  /  AP
A woman reacts at the scene of a car bomb blast in the predominantly Shiite commercial district of Karradah in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday Jan. 23, 2007. Four people, including a woman and a 7-year-old boy, were killed and seven others were wounded, police said. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed )

According to insurance claims on file at the Department of Labor, 770 civilian contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, through December 31, 2006. Additionally, 7,761 civilian contractors have been injured in the same time period, according to claims on file.

Hours before President Bush’s annual State of the Union address, the U.S. military announced three more troop deaths, a Marine killed Sunday and two soldiers killed on Monday. That raised the three-day toll since Saturday to 31.

57 Iraqis killed Tuesday
In addition to the five Iraqi police and morgue officials, meanwhile, reported at least 57 people were killed in sectarian violence nationwide on Tuesday, including 27 bodies, most showing signs of torture, that were dumped in Baghdad.

The U.S. military also reported it had arrested four suspects in the Jan. 20 sneak attack on U.S. forces during a security meeting with their Iraqi counterparts in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

The statement said the four were captured two days afterward on a tip from a resident of the city south of Baghdad. It said the four were found in a house near where SUVs used in the attack had been abandoned after the insurgent fighters fled.

Before the assault, the insurgents, who wore American-style military uniforms, were waved through a checkpoint at the outskirts of Karbala by security officials. Authorities apparently were fooled by the uniforms and the fact that the attackers were traveling in vehicles normally used by official U.S. or Iraqi convoys..

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