BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group militants armed with a rocket launcher shot down an Iraqi military attack helicopter Friday, killing two pilots and raising new worries about their ability to attack aircraft amid ongoing U.S.-led airstrikes.
The Mi-35 helicopter crashed outside the town of Beiji, 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad and home to Iraq's largest oil refinery, authorities said. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari told state-run Iraqiyya TV that the crash killed the helicopter's two pilots and that authorities had begun an investigation.
An official with the Defense Ministry told The Associated Press the militants downed the between the towns of Beiji and al-Senniyah. An official with the Iraqi air force corroborated the information, saying the helicopter's pilot and co-pilot were killed in the crash.
Both Iraqi officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak with journalists.
Supporters of the Islamic State group on social media also reported the helicopter being shot down.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops amid the blitz offensive launched by al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group, which captured large swaths of land in the country's west and north, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. It has carved out a proto-state on the territory it holds between Syria and Iraq, ruling with its own harsh interpretation of Shariah law.
The shoot down of the helicopter shows the Islamic State group's ability to counter air operations, potentially putting at risk U.S.-led airstrikes in the country. Some fear the militants may have captured some sophisticated weapons, such as ground-to-air missiles capable of shooting down airplanes.
Already, European airlines including Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Air France, U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines and Dubai-based Emirates have changed their commercial flight plans to avoid Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby declined to comment Friday on the helicopter being shot down, though he said U.S. officials would monitor the situation.
U.S. Central Command earlier said it had carried out airstrikes in Sinjar and Fallujah over Thursday and Friday. Canada also announced it was the latest country to join in the aerial campaign against the militant group in Iraq, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying his country may extend the strikes to Syria if invited by President Bashar Assad.
Meanwhile, John Allen, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State group, told journalists in Baghdad that operations to retake Mosul would start "within a year." He praised Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his plan to create a national guard that will defend the country and protect civilians without promoting sectarianism.
"There will be a full-blown conversation about this to engage the tribes where possible to operate in conjunction with Iraqi security forces," Allen said. "As this concept of the national guard continues to flesh out ... the national guard will benefit from recruitment out of the tribes."
"Eventually we'll see coalition elements helping to train those brigades as well," he added.
Al-Abadi's predecessor and Iraq's prime minister for eight years, Nouri al-Maliki, was accused by many of monopolizing power and alienating ethnic and religious minorities from key posts in the government and military. They also said al-Maliki, a Shiite, dismissed many qualified Sunni officers from the military, replacing them with less qualified Shiite officers loyal to him, sparking the leadership crisis in the country's security forces.
Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also called Friday on al-Abadi to create a national security force that doesn't promote sectarianism at a time of heightened tensions between ethnic and religious groups.
The national guard should be a force of "patriotism and purity" to help pull the country out of the crisis, the reclusive al-Sistani said in his Friday sermon delivered by his spokesman Abdul Mehdi Karbalaie in the city of Karbala.
There must be "careful selection with regard to sectarianism or ethnicity or national building within the national guard, so that it does not generate feelings among the enrollees that they are defending certain sects," al-Sistani said.
An Iraqi Cabinet formed Sept. 8, with the exception of the key posts of the defense and interior ministers, with lawmakers failing to agree on who should be nominated. Al-Sistani called upon al-Abadi to select candidates for these critical roles following the coming Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.
In a televised message Friday, on the eve of Eid, al-Abadi declared that the war against the Islamic State militants is in the name of the innocent lives lost and the people who were displaced.
"It is a decision of the people and the army and the society that wants to live in stability and live safely and with a sense of brotherhood and true citizenship, who do not discriminate from one Iraqi to another," he said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.