BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A mortar shell exploded Friday on a street in northern Baghdad, killing three women in their homes. Elsewhere, soldiers discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of six men wearing handcuffs – apparently the latest victims of sectarian death squads.

Three car bombs also went off nearly simultaneously in a market area of southern Baghdad, killing one person and injuring seven, police said.

While March was a bloody month for Iraqi civilians, the death toll for American military personnel stood at least 29 – the lowest monthly total since February 2004, according to a count by the Web site

The mortar shell detonated about dawn, killing a mother and daughter in one house and a woman in an adjacent house in the northeastern neighborhood of Gaylani, police reported. The houses were located near a Christian church and half a mile from the Interior Ministry, but the target was uncertain, police said.

The car bombs went off one by one in a shopping district in Dora, a predominantly Sunni Arab area and one of the most dangerous in the capital. The cars were parked in separate parts of the Assyrian Market, a sprawling collection of stores and street vendors selling clothing and foods.

Police said there were no police or army checkpoints in the area and it appeared that civilians were the targets.

The six bodies were found in western Baghdad’s large Sunni Jamaa neighborhood and appeared to have been aged between 25 and 30, police said. Since the beginning of the month, nearly 400 bodies have been found in Baghdad, apparent victims of tit-for-tat killings by Shiite and Sunni extremists.

Tensions between the rival Muslim communities escalated following the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques in Baghdad, Basra and other mixed cities.

Communal violence may have been partly responsible for the sharp decline in deaths among American forces as mostly Sunni insurgents shifted their attacks to fellow Iraqis. A total of 117 U.S. service members died in Iraq in the first two months of this year.

In a teleconference with Pentagon reporters, the commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, said U.S. losses were also down because Iraqi troops were increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the insurgents.

Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, cited the Iraqi role in an operation in Dora, where the car bombs exploded.

“What I saw today was a true Iraqi force in the lead with … coalition assistance, performing a great job out there,” he said.

Giving Iraqi forces a greater role in security is a major U.S. goal so that the Bush administration can begin drawing down its 133,000-strong military presence here. U.S. officials have also urged the Iraqis to form a government of national unity following elections last December.

But that goal has been delayed in part because of sectarian tensions which flared after the Samarra shrine bombing.

On Friday, representatives of the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties met again to discuss the new government. The discussions focused on how much power the prime minister should wield over security issues, according to participants.

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