Date set for power transfer

MOSUL, Iraq – The Iraqi Governing Council endorsed a U.S. plan Saturday that would create a provisional government by June.

Also Saturday, two Black Hawk helicopters collided and crashed in Mosul, killing 17 American soldiers in the U.S. military’s worst single loss of life since the Iraq war began. Five

soldiers were injured and one was missing, the military said. One helicopter smashed into the roof of a house, witnesses said, and there were reports one of the aircraft was shot down.

On the day the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed the 400 mark, the plan for a new Iraqi government announced Saturday reflected Washington’s desire to speed up the handover of power as attacks against American occupation forces grow more sophisticated and deadly. The Bush administration dropped its insistence that a constitution be drawn up and elections held before the transfer takes places.

However, one of the 24 members of Iraq’s Governing Council warned that “execution of the plan won’t be easy” without improvement in the security situation and a revival of Iraq’s economy.

The council, which has acted as Iraq’s interim administration since it was appointed in July, announced a set of deadlines that would give Iraq a provisional national assembly by May, a transitional administration with full sovereign powers in June and an elected government before the end of 2005.

With the return of sovereignty in June, the U.S. military occupation will formally end, although American forces are expected to remain in Iraq under a new arrangement to be worked out with the Iraqis.

Until a constitution is drafted and adopted, a basic law will be promulgated by the Governing Council and take effect in February.

The law, according to an official statement, would establish a democratic and federal state that “respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people with the guarantee of the right of other religions and sects.”

It will enshrine respect for human rights and ensure equality of members of the country’s diverse religious and ethnic groups.

The new timetable replaced a political blueprint by L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, that envisaged a new constitution and a democratic government for Iraq before the end of 2004. The plan fell apart when council members could not agree on how to proceed with drafting a constitution.

Hours after the announcement of the new timetable, two Black Hawks from the 101st Airborne Division went down in the Borsa residential neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city.

A statement by the U.S. command said one helicopter was carrying a quick reaction force and the other ferried soldiers on a transport mission in northern Iraq.

The statement did not give the cause of the crash, although some soldiers at the scene said at least one of the Black Hawks may have been hit by ground fire.

“The cause of the incidents are under investigation,” the statement said.

Before the crash, the U.S. military’s deadliest incident was the downing of a Chinook transport helicopter on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. A Black Hawk was also shot down on Nov. 7, killing all six soldiers on board.

There were days early in the war in which more soldiers died, but they were spread over several attacks or accidents.

Earlier in the day, a 1st Armored Division soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. The crash put the number of American casualties since the March invasion at 417.