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 fellow 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 a total of 18 American military personnel. At least two of the helicopters were shot down.
Also Saturday, the U.S. command reported that a Marine was mortally wounded the day before during combat operations in Anbar province west of the capital. The Marine’s death brought to at least 2,328 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The violence came as U.S. officials expressed increasing impatience with the slow pace of government talks following the Dec. 15 elections.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged the Iraqis to speed up the process to prevent the country from sliding into civil war.
“The terrorists are seeking to provoke sectarian war, and Iraq needs a government of national unity in the face of this threat,” Khalilzad said in a statement released Saturday.
“This government needs to have a good program to govern from the center, and needs good ministers who are competent. Iraq is bleeding while they are moving at a very slow pace,” he added.
New violence kills at least 22
At least 22 people were killed Saturday in fresh violence in Baghdad and Basra, Iraq’s two largest cities. Six others—all Shiites—died Friday evening when gunmen opened fire on a minibus northeast of Baghdad, police said.
Tension between the rival Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities escalated following the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques and clerics in Baghdad, Basra and other religiously mixed cities.
On Saturday, gunmen killed three ice cream vendors in Baghdad’s southern neighborhood of Dora, while a butcher and his son were killed and another son was wounded in east Baghdad, police said.
The owner of an air conditioner repair shop was shot to death on his way to work in western Baghdad.
Police also found nine bodies, mostly young men who were shot in the head or strangled in Baghdad. Witnesses also told police they saw three gunmen in a BMW pull a handcuffed man out of the car and shoot him near a highway in west Baghdad.
In Basra, a Sunni sheik was killed by gunmen in a speeding car when he left his home in the southern city. Two policemen also were killed in a bombing south of Basra, police said.
West of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed three suspected insurgents, including a woman, and captured three others Saturday in an operation in Amiriyah in Anbar province, the U.S. military said.
The six Shiites—all men—were killed Friday night near Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle as they were returning home from visiting relatives, the town’s mayor, Mohammed Maarouf, said.
The motive for the attack was unclear. However, it occurred in a religiously mixed province which has recorded numerous acts of violence by Shiite and Sunni Arab extremists against members of the rival communities.