14 US soldiers killed in Iraq – as US General says British army must be expanded

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Fourteen American soldiers were killed in northern Iraq yesterday when their Blackhawk transport helicopter came down during a pre-dawn flight, US command said in a statement.

‘Initial indications are that the aircraft experienced a mechanical malfunction,’ the US military said, adding that all four crew and 10 passengers died. The military claimed: ‘There were no indications of hostile fire.’

Two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from Task Force Lightning, which operates in a large area of northern Iraq, including the cities of Balad, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul and Samarra, were on a night mission when one of them went down, according to a statement from the unit’s headquarters in Tikrit.

US forces in Iraq make constant use of a huge fleet of helicopters, and are increasingly dependent on them to avoid the roadside bombs laid by insurgents along land routes. Last week, five US servicemen were killed when a US helicopter went down near an air base west of Baghdad.

The CH-47 Chinook helicopter was conducting a maintenance test flight when it crashed near Taqaddum air base. The worst single US chopper crash was on November 15, 2003, when two Blackhawks collided near Mosul in northern Iraq, killing 17 soldiers.

Meanwhile, General Jack Keane, has stepped into the middle of the row over British troops quitting southern Iraq. Senior United States military adviser, Keane, the alleged architect of the US ‘surge’ said yesterday that the British Army needs to grow in size.

US leaders were accepting that they needed to expand the number of their ground troops, he said, adding that ‘the same thing applies to the proud and distinguished British Army. It needs to grow in size to help assist in maintaining security as the situations in the 21st century begin to evolve and challenge the West.’

General Keane expressed his ‘frustration’ at British forces in southern Iraq. He said ‘There is a general disengagement from what the key issues are around Basra. The Brits have never had enough troops to truly protect the population and we have found that out painfully in the central region as well. Security has been gradually deteriorating, with almost gangland warfare and the lack of ability of the police to control that level of violence, so the situation will continue to deteriorate.’

He added that US commanders wanted to avoid filling any vacuum left by the British. He warned: ‘That situation could arise if the situation gets worse in Basra, if and when British troops leave.’

It is believed that last weekend a group of senior British Army officers saw prime minister Brown and urged him that the British Army must leave Basra at once.