BAGHDAD – The monthly toll of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq is on track to being the lowest in nearly two years, with at least 34 troop deaths recorded as of Tuesday, but the military cautioned it's too early to declare a long-term trend.
Iraqi civilians, meanwhile, faced more attacks on Tuesday.
At least four mortar rounds slammed into a village near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, killing a woman and wounding five other civilians, police said.
In Baghdad, gunmen in a speeding car tossed a hand grenade into a crowd of shoppers in eastern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding five, according to an officer in the capital. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
At least 34 American service members have died so far in October, nearly a third from non-combat causes.
It is the lowest number since 32 troops died in March 2006 and the second-lowest since 20 troop deaths in February 2004, according to an Associated Press count based on military figures.
That would be the second consecutive drop in monthly figures, after 65 Americans died in September and 84 in August.
In all, at least 3,840 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to the AP count.
Maj. Winfield Danielson, a military spokesman in Baghdad, pointed to a number of likely reasons for the decline, including a U.S. security push that has driven militants out of former safe havens and a change in strategy that has placed troops closer to the population. That, in turn, has caused a rise in the number of tips from residents about roadside bombs and other dangers.
He also singled out the cease-fire call by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who in August ordered his fighters to cease attacks against U.S.-led forces and other Iraqis for up to six months. Danielson said Iraqi forces also were increasingly taking charge of security operations.
He welcomed the lower numbers but stressed it was too early to say it was a downward trend.
"Have we turned a corner? It might be a little too early to say that," he said. "It's certainly encouraging."
Ten of the American casualties, or nearly one-third, were listed as non-combat so far this month, compared with 19 of the 65 American troop deaths in September.
The U.S. military usually doesn't provide details about the causes of non-combat deaths in its releases, and Danielson said they could comprise anything ranging from vehicle accidents to suicides.
He said he could not immediately discuss whether the numbers of such deaths were unusual, although he calculated that about 82 percent of the overall casualties since the war started through Oct. 19 were from hostile fire or bombings.
"Either way it's a tragedy. We want to prevent both," he said.
In August, the U.S. Army expressed concern that repeated deployments and tours of duty that have been stretched to 15 months were putting increasing pressure on military families and creating record suicide rates among soldiers.
There were 99 Army suicides last year — nearly half of them soldiers who hadn't reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The 2006 total — the highest rate in 26 years of record-keeping and the largest raw figure in 15 years — came despite Army efforts to set up new programs and strengthen old ones for providing mental health care to a force stretched by the longer-than-expected conflict in Iraq and the global counterterrorism war entering its sixth year.
The current pace of civilian deaths also would put October at less than 900. The figure last month was 1,023 and for August, 1,956, according to figures compiled by the AP from hospital, police and military officials, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers. Insurgent deaths are not included. Other counts differ and some have given higher civilian death tolls.
Suspected Sunni and Shiite extremists appear to have stepped up attacks in recent weeks, however.
A suicide bomber rode his bicycle into a crowd of police recruits in Baqouba, killing at least 29 people in a province that has become a battleground among U.S. forces, Al Qaeda militants and Shiite radicals.
A group of Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders, meanwhile, were rescued on Monday, one day after they were kidnapped in the capital after meeting with the government to discuss how to coordinate efforts against Al Qaeda in Iraq. A Sunni sheik who was among those abducted was killed.
Clashes also erupted for more than four hours Monday as American forces battled Shiite militia fighters near al-Sadr office in the predominantly Shiite northwestern Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah. Before the clashes, witnesses described militia fighters wielding weapons in the streets, which were blocked to outside access.
A U.S. brigadier general was wounded in a roadside bombing Monday in northern Baghdad, the military reported, but it could not be determined if that was connected to the fighting.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Dorko, commanding general of the Gulf Region Division, was the highest-ranking American officer to be hurt since the conflict began in March 2003. Dorko was in stable condition and was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany; his injuries were not life-threatening.