BAGHDAD, Iraq - The four U.S. helicopters that have crashed in Iraq since Jan. 20 were apparently shot down, the chief American military spokesman said Sunday - the first time the U.S. command has publicly acknowledged that the aircraft were lost to enemy fire.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes of three Army and one private helicopters are incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."
"There's been an ongoing effort since we've been here to target our helicopters," Caldwell said. "Based on what we have seen, we're already making adjustments in our tactics and techniques and procedures as to how we employ our helicopters."
On Friday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that insurgent ground fire in Iraq "has been more effective against our helicopters in the last couple of weeks."
But Pace said it was unclear whether "this is some kind of new tactics or techniques that we need to adjust to."
In the aftermath of the worst single bomb attack in Iraq since the start of the war - 137 people killed in a suicide truck bombing on a Shiite market - stunned Iraqis picked through the rubble of devastated buildings and loaded coffins onto minivans.
The explosion Saturday was fifth major bombing in less than a month targeting predominantly Shiite districts in Baghdad and the southern Shiite city of Hillah. It also was the worst in the capital since a series of car bombs and mortars killed at least 215 people in the Shiite district of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
Bandaged women, children and men filled hospital beds, while several bloodied bodies were piled onto blankets on the floor of the morgue, which was filled to capacity. Minivans carried wooden coffins to funerals.
The blast shaved the walls off nearby buildings, sending bricks, desks and other debris spilling onto Kifah Street, where the Sadriyah market was located. Police used loudspeakers to ask people to leave the area, fearing another suicide bomber could slip into the crowd. Shiite militiamen prevented anyone from entering the emptied buildings.
"It is a tragedy. The terrorists want to punish the Iraqi people. There was no police or American presence in this market yesterday," said Adnan Lafta, a 51-year-old seller of gas cylinders.
The bombing came just days before American and Iraqi forces were expected to start an all-out assault on Sunni and Shiite gunmen and bombers in the capital.
Only a day earlier, 16 American intelligence agencies made public a National Intelligence Estimate that said conditions in Baghdad were perilous.
"Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress ... in the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate," a declassified synopsis of the report declared.
Suspicion fell on Sunni insurgents - al-Qaida in Iraq and allied groups in particular. The militant bombers are believed to have stepped up their campaign against Shiites in the final days before the joint U.S.-Iraqi crackdown in Baghdad. Many saw the operation as a last-chance effort to clamp off violence that has turned the capital into a sectarian battleground.
Saturday's death toll surpassed a Feb. 28, 2005, suicide car bomb targeting mostly Shiite police and national guard recruits in Hillah that killed 125.
In the hours after the explosion, Shiite and Sunni mortar teams traded fire across the darkened city. Two people were killed and 20 wounded in one predominantly Sunni district.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the bombing was "an example of what the forces of evil will do to intimidate the Iraqi people."
Maj. Gen. Jihad al-Jabiri of the Iraqi Interior Ministry said the truck had been packed with a ton of explosives.
Iraqis elsewhere in Baghdad faced another round of bombings and shootings on Sunday, with at least 22 people killed, including eight people who died in two car bombings.
Iraqi soldiers also detained 32 militants and discovered four weapons caches in western Baghdad, seizing 1,128 mortar rounds, five rocket-propelled grenades, a rocket launcher, 50 anti-aircraft shells and other ammunition, according to the Defense Ministry.
An Iraqi militant group tied to al-Qaida in Iraq announced Saturday it had launched its own new strategy to counter the coming U.S.-Iraqi crackdown.
In an audiotape posted on a Web site commonly used by the insurgents, a voice purported to be that of Abu Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said the group would "widen the circle of battles" beyond Baghdad to all of Iraq. Al-Baghdadi heads The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups in Iraq.
The U.S. military reported the deaths of five more soldiers - four in fighting and one of an apparent heart attack. All died Friday.