31 Marines Killed In
Helicopter Crash In Iraq

The Guardian - UK
(Staff and agencies) -- Thirty-one US marines were killed when the helicopter transporting them crashed in the desert in west Iraq today, the most deaths in one incident since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A Pentagon source said the helicopter was a CH-53 Sea Stallion, which is normally configured to carry 37 passengers, but can take up to 55. There was no immediate word on how many people were on board.
The helicopter went down near the town of Rutba, about 220 miles west of Baghdad, while conducting security operations, the military said in a statement.
It was not clear whether it was shot down or crashed in an accident.
The aircraft was transporting personnel from the 1st Marine Division. A search and rescue team has reached the site and an investigation into what caused the crash is underway.
The US military has lost at least 33 helicopters since the start of the Iraq conflict in March 2003, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. At least 20 of them were brought down by hostile fire.
The deadliest previous single incident involving US troops so far took place on November 15 2003, when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in Mosul after colliding while trying to avoid ground fire, killing 17 US soldiers and wounding five.
Last month, a suicide bomb exploded at a mess tent in a base near Mosul, killing 22 people including 14 US soldiers and three American contractors.
Election curfew extended
The Iraqi government today announced it would ban travel between provinces and extend the hours of a curfew as part of heightened security measures being imposed for this weekend's elections.
Falah al-Naqib, the Iraqi interior minister, said the curfew - currently set to run between 8pm and 6am - would be brought forward by an hour to begin at 7pm.
It would be enforced from Friday evening until Monday, the day after voting. During that period, only vehicles with special permits would be allowed to travel between Iraq's 18 provinces.
The government has already announced plans to close Baghdad international airport and seal the nation's borders during the election period. Weapons will be banned, and Mr Naqib said rewards would be given to Iraqis who turned in "terrorists".
Zarqawi 'aide' arrested
Mr Naqib also announced the arrest of an alleged aide to al-Qaida's purported leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The arrested man - identified as Khamees Mohsen al-Egaily - was said to have been involved in explosions and murders.
Mr Naqib said the government was determined to hold the election throughout the country, regardless of the threat from insurgents. However, militants continued their campaign of violence today, staging attacks against US forces, schools intended to be used as polling stations, and political party offices.
Three car bombs exploded in Riyadh, around 40 miles south-west of Kirkuk, killing at least five people, including three policemen. One of the car bombs targeted a US convoy, but police said there were no reports of casualties. The other bombs targeted a police station and the mayor's office, and Reuters quoted police sources as putting the death toll at nine people.
Four US soldiers were injured in a separate car bombing in Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, the US military said. Witnesses also reported a US convoy coming under attack on the road to Baghdad airport, with at least one vehicle being destroyed.
In the Sadr City area of Baghdad, Iraqi forces, backed by US troops, mounted an overnight raid on a Shia mosque, detaining up to 25 followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, police and the cleric's supporters said.
In separate operations, US troops found at least six bombs at different locations around Baghdad, the military said, while Iraqi police discovered two more devices in the Shia holy city of Najaf.
Insurgents attacked the Baquba offices of the Communist party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the United Iraqi Gathering with heavy machine gun fire. A traffic policeman was killed and four bystanders wounded in the attacks, police spokesman Hassan Ahmed said.
Militants carried out overnight attacks on at least two Baghdad schools scheduled to be used as polling stations in the elections.
Residents of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, reported that clashes between US troops and rebels had erupted when a US patrol came under attack from rocket-propelled grenades. One Iraqi was killed and two wounded, according to Dr Dhiaa al-Hiti of the Ramadi general hospital.
In the northern city of Mosul, insurgents released a video recording apparently showing three Iraqi captives. On the tape, they said they worked for the Iraqi electoral commission.
The footage, seen by Reuters correspondents, showed the three men sitting in a room with weapons being pointed at them. One of the hostages, identified in the video as Abdul-Khaliq Ahmed, said he worked for the electoral commission in the province including Mosul, and was the administrative director of an election office in the city.
Two militants wearing balaclavas also appeared in the tape without the hostages. One held a pistol while reading a statement, and the other posed for the camera by looking through the target sight of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
"We are mujahideen in the province of Nineveh. What they call elections have no basis in the Islamic religion and that's why we will hit all election centres," the militant said. The militants did not threaten to kill the election workers in their statement.
Several insurgent groups in Iraq, including the group led by Zarqawi, have declared war on the electoral process.
The election will be Iraq's first multi-party poll in half a century. Voters will elect a 275-member assembly that will pick Iraq's new transitional government and draft a permanent constitution for the country.
Despite the continuing violence, the prime minister, Tony Blair, today indicated in an interview with the Financial Times that Britain and the US could begin handing over large parts of Iraq to the country's security forces after the election.
Mr Blair would not be drawn on a deadline for withdrawal, but told the FT that Washington and London were set to agree "timelines" with the new government that would indicate the pace at which Iraqi forces could take over less difficult areas of the country.
"Both ourselves and the Iraqis want us to leave as soon as possible. The question is, what is as soon as possible? And the answer is when the Iraqi forces have the capability to do the job," he said.
"There are areas where we would be able to hand over to those Iraqi forces. Remember, 14 out of the 18 provinces in Iraq are relatively peaceful and stable."
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