BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq”s majority Shiite Muslims celebrated the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday as authorities maintained tight security fearing an increase in insurgent attacks.
The holiday marks the end of the Ramadan month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, which has since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq been characterized by an increase in attacks.
Since Saturday, at least 71 people have been killed in bombings on civilian Shiite targets.
Six Iraqi police were killed and 10 wounded in an early morning battle with insurgents at a checkpoint near the town of Bohruz, 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Baghdad, a security source said.
At 7:00 am (0400 GMT) a group of men in cars approached a checkpoint and opened fire on police with automatic weapons, the source said.
Separately, the US military said that two US soldiers died in Iraq on Thursday.
One died "as a result of non-battle related causes" late Thursday near the town of Tallil, near Balad, some 75 kilometers (45 miles) north of Baghdad, the US military said Friday.
Earlier the military said that a military policeman was killed by a roadside bomb near the town of Baquba, close to Tallil.
The deaths brings to at least 2,031 the number of US military personnel who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures.
Iraq”s Sunni Muslims, along with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his supporters, began celebrating Eid al-Fitr on Thursday, while Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, decreed that celebrations were to begin Friday.
On Thursday Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed on an Islamist website to have shot down a US marine helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile. Two marines died when the aircraft crashed near the restive Sunni Arab town of Ramadi on Wednesday morning.
US Army General Rick Lynch said Thursday that the AH-1 Super Cobra, which had been flying low in support of ground troops, might have been shot down.
"People on the ground believe they saw a munition fired at the helicopter," he said. They "saw the helicopter break into pieces in midair and then crash."
In a separate statement, Al-Qaeda said it will kill two Moroccan embassy staffers it is holding hostage as relatives pleaded for their release.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is headed by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Iraq.
In Washington, Lieutenant General James Conway, director of operations of the Joint Staff, said the US military plans to keep about 160,000 troops in Iraq through general elections in December.
Conway also said that 210,000 Iraqi security forces have now been trained and equipped.
No decision has been made on whether force levels will fall to 138,000, the baseline for US forces over the past year, said chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita.
Concerned over the rising casualties due to attacks by so-called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the Pentagon is considering appointing a three-star general to head a task force aimed at finding ways to counter the bombs.
Conway said greater focus is being put on IEDs "because it”s the only tool the enemy really has left in order to be able to take us on and be able to really cause casualties."
A 140-person Pentagon task force has been working on ways to combat roadside bombings since mid-2004.
Despite 1.5 billion dollars in funding, the group has produced no technological silver bullet against IEDs, and insurgents have managed to stay a step ahead of new tactics developed by the military.
In October, the fourth deadliest month of the Iraq war for the US military, bomb explosions accounted for more than half of the US dead, according to statistics compiled by the Brookings Institution”s Iraq Index.
Conway said defeating IEDs was now one of the military”s highest priorities.