U.S. copter crash kills 7 in Iraq

An American Chinook helicopter crashed early today in southern Iraq, killing seven U.S. soldiers, the military said.

A U.S. statement said the CH-47 Chinook was landing shortly after midnight about 60 miles west of Basra when it crashed. The chopper was part of an aerial convoy flying from Kuwait to the U.S. military base at Balad just north of Baghdad. There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash or whether hostile fire was involved. The statement said the crash was under investigation.

In Baghdad, for the second time in three days, twin bombs tore through a busy street Wednesday, killing at least eight people.

Also Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued one of his toughest statements yet about Iraqi-U.S. negotiations over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. The deadline for an agreement is Dec. 31, when the U.N. mandate governing U.S. forces here expires.

Al-Maliki said an agreement was not imminent and that the U.N. Security Council would have to extend its mandate if an accord is not reached. He warned that an extension was far from guaranteed, given Russia's sour relations with the U.S. This would leave “the Americans in a critical stage without a legal cover” to be in Iraq, al-Maliki said.

His comments and the day's violence were biting after several weeks of relative quiet and assurances from Iraqi and U.S. officials that differences over the Status of Forces Agreement could be smoothed out.

Police said the bombs went off five minutes apart in western Baghdad's Harthiya neighborhood, on a street lined with currency-exchange houses and a private hospital. Officials numbered the wounded at 20.

On Monday, two bombs in eastern Baghdad killed at least 13 people.

In both cases, the bombs were placed in separate cars, parked along the streets.

Separately, the U.S. military announced that two soldiers died Wednesday of noncombat causes. At least 4,161 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since March 2003, according to the independent Web site

Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, gunmen assassinated a top aide to the provincial governor as the aide left a mosque after evening prayers. Ninevah is a stronghold of Sunni Arab insurgents loyal to al-Qaida in Iraq, which continues to regenerate despite a major Iraqi and U.S. military presence in the region.

Also Wednesday, the Army said a soldier was detained after he allegedly opened fire on a superior and another unit member, killing them both.

The soldier was subdued by other troops, and medics tried unsuccessfully to save the wounded soldiers, said Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commanding general at Fort Stewart in southern Georgia, where the soldiers' unit is based.

An Army spokesman said the shooting happened Sunday in Tunnis, Iraq. The slain soldiers and the alleged shooter, whose name was not released, belong to the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division.