updated 10/31/2008 2:41:02 PM ET 2008-10-31T18:41:02

U.S. deaths in Iraq fell in October to their lowest monthly level of the war, matching the record low of 13 U.S. fatalities suffered in July. Iraqi deaths fell to their lowest monthly levels of the year.

Eight of the 13 Americans died in combat, most of them in northern Iraq where al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent groups remain active. The U.S. suffered 25 deaths in September and 23 in August.

The sharp drop in U.S. fatalities reflects the overall security improvements across the country following the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and the rout suffered by Shiite extremists in fighting last spring in Basra and Baghdad.

But the decline also points to a shift in tactics by extremist groups, which U.S. commanders say are focusing their attacks on Iraqi soldiers and police that are doing much of the fighting.

Iraqi government figures showed at least 364 Iraqis were killed in October — including police, soldiers, civilians and militants.

An Associated Press tally based on police and U.S. military reports showed the previous monthly low for the year was August's figure of 475.

Iraq remains dangerous, unstable
Despite the sharp decline, the Iraqi death tolls — though well below levels of 2006 and 2007 — serve as a reminder that Iraq remains a dangerous, unstable country despite the security gains, which U.S. military commanders repeatedly warn are fragile and reversible.

U.S. commanders are also worried that security could worsen if the Iraqi parliament refuses to approve a new security agreement by the end of December, when the U.N. mandate under which the coalition operates in Iraq expires.

Without a new agreement or a new U.N. mandate, U.S. military operations would have to stop. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government is pressing for changes in the draft agreement before submitting to parliament.

Much of that concern focuses on Mosul, Iraq's third largest city about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a new operation Oct. 15 to clear al-Qaida and other insurgent groups from the city.

Violence occurs almost daily in Mosul, although the U.S. military says attacks there are down by almost half since May.

Attacks and threats against Christians in Mosul prompted about 13,000 of them to flee the city in early October.

On Friday, a local official, Jawdat Ismaeel, said Christians are trickling back to the city after police and soldiers increased security patrols and checkpoints in Christian neighborhoods.

He said 35 Christian families, or about 210 people, have returned in the past week and the exodus from the city has largely stopped.

The Iraqi government has offered each Christian family that returns the equivalent of about $865, although officials say the response so far has been lukewarm.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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