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Al Qaeda claims downing of US copter

Witnesses say craft was struck by ground fire

BAGHDAD -- Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed yesterday that it shot down a US attack helicopter that crashed, killing two Marines, and a US general said witnesses saw the aircraft take ground fire and break up in the air.

The AH-1W Super Cobra crashed Wednesday near Ramadi during daylong fighting in the insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. In addition to the two crewmen, a US lieutenant died when a bomb exploded as he was rushing to the crash site.

Another US soldier died yesterday in a roadside bombing northeast of Baghdad, the military said.

In its statement, Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said that its military wing ''downed a Super Cobra attack helicopter in Ramadi with a Strella rocket, thanks be to God."

The authenticity of the statement could not be determined. It appeared on an Islamic website and bore the nickname of the group's spokesman, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi. The US military said the cause of the crash had not been determined.

However, Major General Rick Lynch told reporters yesterday that witnesses ''believe they saw a munition fired at the helicopter and saw the helicopter break in pieces in midair and then crash."

In Burlington, Vt., Major General Martha Rainville, the adjutant general of the state's National Guard, said 2d Lieutentant Mark Procopio, 28, of Burlington was killed Wednesday by the roadside bomb as his patrol of four Humvees and two tanks headed to secure the crash site.

''He and his patrol were on a routine mission when they saw a Marine helicopter coming under fire, realized it was going to crash, and responded to provide assistance as necessary and to secure the site," Rainville said. The Humvee in which Procopio was riding struck the bomb and he was killed instantly, she said.

Yesterday, another US soldier died in a roadside bombing near Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. The soldier's name was not released, but the US command said he was assigned to the Army's 43d Military Police Brigade.

The soldier's death raised to at least 2,037 the number of US military service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. It was also the eighth battle death among the 157,000-member US force in November. October was the fourth deadliest month for American service members since the conflict began.

Roadside bombs, which the US military refers to as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have accounted for most of the recent US battle deaths, despite a vigorous campaign to improve armament on US vehicles and to hunt down insurgent weapons caches.

Last week, for example, 40 percent of the attacks against US and coalition forces were carried out with IEDs, Lynch said. But they accounted for 64 percent of the US and coalition casualties, he said.

Lynch declined to talk in detail about increased sophistication of roadside bombs, including the use of infrared triggers. British officials say they have seen the use of infrared triggers in attacks against their forces and suspect the technology has been supplied by Iran, a charge the Iranians have denied.

Lynch also predicted an increase in insurgent attacks in an attempt to derail the Dec. 15 elections, when Iraqis will choose a new parliament.

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