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Al-Qaida in Iraq claims it downed U.S. helicopter that killed two Marines

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed Thursday to have shot down a U.S. attack helicopter that crashed near Ramadi, killing two Marines aboard, and a third serviceman died when his patrol struck a roadside bomb while rushing to their rescue.

Another U.S. soldier was killed Thursday when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb during a combat operation near Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, the military said. The killing raised to at least 2,037 the number of U.S. military service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The helicopter crash that killed the two Marines occurred Wednesday in the insurgent stronghold west of the capital during two days of fighting in the area that saw three other U.S. service members killed by roadside bombs.

Boys stood Thursday beside the wreckage of the AH-1W Super Cobra and residents of the insurgent stronghold buried dead from what they said was a subsequent U.S. airstrike nearby.

"Brethren in al-Qaida in Iraq's military wing downed a Super Cobra attack helicopter in Ramadi with a Strella rocket, thanks be to God," the group said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web forum often used for its claims.

The authenticity of the statement, which bore the nickname of the group's spokesman, Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, could not be confirmed.

The military did not specify the cause of the crash, but Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said Thursday that witnesses "believe they saw a munition fired at the helicopter and saw the helicopter break in pieces in midair and then crash."

Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, said 2nd Lt. Mark Procopio, 28, of Burlington, Vt., was killed Wednesday by the roadside bomb as his patrol of four Humvees and two tanks headed to secure the crash site.

"He and his patrol were on a routine mission when they saw a Marine helicopter coming under fire, realized it was going to crash, and responded to provide assistance as necessary and to secure the site," Rainville said. The Humvee in which Procopio was riding struck the bomb and he was killed instantly, she said.

Hours later, a U.S. fighter jet dropped two 500-pound bombs on what the military said was an "insurgent command center" about 400 yards from where the helicopter went down.

Associated Press Television News video from the scene Thursday showed residents digging through the rubble of several homes and burying a half-dozen bodies in graves. The bodies were covered with blankets, making it impossible to identify them.

In a separate statement, Al-Qaida in Iraq also said it sentenced to death two Moroccan Embassy employees kidnapped last month in Iraq.

Two Iraqi policemen were killed in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad on Thursday, and bodies of 12 men who had been kidnapped and killed were found in a sewage station, police said.

But few attacks by Sunni-led insurgents were reported in Iraq on Thursday as Sunni Arabs began the three-day religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which ends a month of fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Most Iraqi Shiites start the holiday Friday.

In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, children appeared on the streets in new clothes, and the amusement park was crowded with families for the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

But long-standing animosity to U.S. forces also was apparent in the mostly Sunni city, 80 miles north of Baghdad.

"The real Eid for Iraqis will be the day that occupation forces get out of our country," said Aqel Omar, 48, a retired government employee, as he gathered with about 30 relatives.

"I hope that next year our country is liberated and stable and that we can rebuild it again."

On Wednesday, a suicide bomber detonated a minibus in an outdoor market packed with shoppers ahead of Eid, killing about 20 people and wounding more than 60 in Musayyib, a Shiite Muslim town on Euphrates River, about 40 miles south of Baghdad. On July 16, nearly 100 people died in Musayyib in a suicide bombing near the same site.

But little violence was reported across Iraq by late afternoon Thursday.

In Tikrit, the day began for many Sunnis with early-morning services at their mosques. At one, a preacher called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country. But his sermon also urged Sunnis to vote in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election.

Most Sunnis boycotted the Jan. 30 vote that elected the current interim parliament, but many turned up for the constitutional referendum on Oct. 15, and plan to cast ballots in the December election in an effort to get more Sunnis into Iraq's next government.

As Eid began in Tikrit, no American patrols were seen on the streets for the first time in weeks. Iraqi police and soldiers were on duty instead in an apparent effort to reduce the chance of violence ruining the holiday.

Eid celebrations also were taking place in Baghdad's mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah.

Children flocked to an amusement park as Iraqi and U.S. troops stepped up security in the area. Boys and girls lined up to take rides on a small Ferris wheel, a swing set and a horse-drawn carriage.

But Zuhair Shihab, 45, the owner of a food stall in the park, said he felt sad, having just heard that the body of a friend had been found on a Baghdad street 10 days after he was kidnapped.

Such killings are fairly common in Baghdad, some caused by fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, others the result of criminals taking hostages in search of ransoms.

Shihab also was angered by the coalition forces in Azamiyah.

"What kind of Eid we can we celebrate in the presence of U.S. troops?" he said. "They brought all this misery to us."

Elsewhere in Baghdad, some Sunnis marked the start of the holiday by visiting cemeteries and praying at the graves of their relatives.

Fighting between coalition forces and insurgents, and the militants' use of drive-by shootings, suicide bombers and roadside bombs, often make security a top priority for Iraqi families. Some feel they have to closely guard their houses, day and night.

The timing of this year's Eid holiday also is another sign of the deep divisions that developed between minority Sunnis and majority Shiites under Saddam, a Sunni who persecuted many Shiites.

The months of the Muslim calendar are lunar. Therefore, they start when the new moon is spotted by a trustworthy members of the community. Based on that observance, Sunni clerics decided that Eid would begin on Thursday this year, while Shiites chose Friday.

Those differences were obvious at the Kazimiyah shrine in Baghdad on Thursday, where Shiite cleric Hazimal Araji, waving a rifle in the air, led worshippers chanting for the liberation of Iraq — not from U.S. forces but from Sunni insurgents.

Associated Press reporters Jacob Silberberg in Balad, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, and Wilson Ring in Colchester, Vt., contributed to this report.