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Gunmen kill 6, including policemen asleep at their post, in Baghdad checkpoint shootings

BAGHDAD (AP) — Gunmen killed six Iraqi security personnel Saturday, including a pair of sleeping policemen who were shot and set on fire, amid persistent debate over whether Iraqi forces can protect the country as U.S. troops leave.

The early-morning shootings at Baghdad checkpoints demonstrated the insurgents' aim to weaken confidence in the government and aggravate sectarian tension as all but 50,000 U.S. troops head home by the end of August.

In the first attack, gunmen armed with silenced pistols killed two policemen asleep in their patrol car at a security checkpoint in the Shiite-dominated New Baghdad neighborhood, said an officer with the federal police in Baghdad. The assailants then set the car on fire and fled, he said.

A half-hour later, a drive-by shooting on a checkpoint killed two more policemen in the Amil area, another Shiite neighborhood, in southwest Baghdad, two other police officials said. Two passers-by were injured, they said.

Around the same time, gunmen attacked a checkpoint manned by government-backed Sunni fighters from groups known as Awakening Councils in the mostly Shiite Shaab district in the capital's northeast. One of the fighters was killed and two were injured, the police officials said.

It was not clear if the shootings were coordinated or carried out by the same attackers. Health workers at the Baghdad city morgue and two hospitals confirmed the casualties.

Hours later, a bomb attached to a policeman's personal car killed the driver and wounded two passengers, who were also policemen, officials said. The blast occurred outside Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

All authorities spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

As the number of U.S. soldiers dwindles at a rate of about 4,000 each week, insurgents have stepped up attacks on Iraqi security forces, demonstrating remaining vulnerabilities. Checkpoints continue to be an easy target for gunmen, and traffic police — many of whom are unarmed — have also been slain in recent weeks.

Last year, President Barack Obama ordered all but 50,000 U.S. troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31 as part of his campaign promise to end what he once termed "a dumb war." Under a security agreement between both nations, all U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

But fears that Iraq's security forces won't be able to fend for themselves have been voiced more vocally as the end-of-the-month deadline nears. This week, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, who commands Iraq's military, repeated his warning that his army may not be ready to defend the nation until 2020.

Babaker has said for months that it may be necessary for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until his soldiers can take full control of security, but the timing of his statement this week was widely seen as a veiled plea for the American military to reconsider its departure.

A government spokesman said Saturday that Iraqi security forces will be ready to defend the nation by the end of 2011.

"Iraq does not need a constant American military presence or bases in Iraq," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

So far, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has stuck by the 2011 deadline outlined in the security agreement, but he also is struggling to hold on to his job after coming in second place in March parliamentary elections to a Sunni-backed political coalition. Iraq's government largely has been in disarray since, with no end in sight to bickering over who will be the country's next leader.

Iraqi civilians also are coming under attack. A bomb attached to a car in the Amil area of Baghdad blew up Saturday morning, injuring its driver and three bystanders, officials said.

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Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Bushra Juhi and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.