TWO US Blackhawk transport helicopters were downed over Iraq Thursday in the most deadly incident in the region for United States forces since the end of the Gulf War.
Pentagon officials indicated that the aircraft had been hit by missiles fired from two US F-15 jets in a tragic incident of ``friendly fire.'' Earlier, Iraqi Kurdish rebels claimed that the Blackhawks were the victims of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's air force.
The helicopters were carrying over 20 US, British, French, and Turkish officers to a meeting with Kurdish leaders in Salahaddin, near the center of the zone now controlled by Kurdish rebels with US-led allied air protection. Kurdish sources said there were no survivors of the crash.
US military officials said the F-15s apparently mis-identified the two Blackhawks for Iraqi ``Hind'' choppers and that a special-radar AWACS plane was in the area at the time.
President Clinton ordered a full inquiry of the circumstances by the Pentagon. And he asked the country to ``join in sorrow'' at what he calls a ``terrible'' event.
The problem of friendly fire was a major military issue to emerge from the lessons of the Gulf War. A post-war study identified 28 times in which US forces inadvertently targeted their fellow soldiers, resulting in 35 dead and 72 wounded. The bulk of these mistakes were ground-to-ground incidents, however. Nine involved US aircraft misidentifying and attacking ground troops, and none involved air-to-air combat.
US aircraft typically carry electronic devices, called IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), which mark them as friendly when ``interrogated'' by the electronics of other US planes. But these are not foolproof, and the capabilities of new air-to-air missiles enable combat to take place at distances beyond the ability of the human eye to identify targets.
US and other allied warplanes have been patrolling the ``no-fly'' zone over northern Iraq since shortly after the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
US forces involved in the protection of the Kurdish enclave have been on alert in recent weeks as Saddam Hussein has built up his forces in the north, perhaps prepartory to some sort of offensive. Analysts have long said that the resiliant Saddam might try some sort of attack if he felt US attention was diverted elsewhere - such as Bosnia, where tensions are still running high.