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Gun battle breaks out near Green Zone

BAGHDAD -- A heavy gunfight broke out yesterday on a dangerous street in central Baghdad within blocks of the country's most fortified facilities, including the US Embassy and interim Iraqi government headquarters. Five more American troops were killed in the volatile Anbar province.

A dawn attack on a domestic oil pipeline supplying fuel from northern Iraq to Baghdad and clashes that killed three militants in the turbulent west underlined the security difficulties ahead of Jan. 30 national elections.

Heavily armed insurgents have been emboldened by a spate of attacks across Iraq that have claimed more than 80 lives in recent days, mostly Iraqis working for the coalition or Iraqi national security forces.

On Baghdad's Haifa Street yesterday, witnesses said gunmen killed an Iraqi employed by coalition authorities not far from the Green Zone, a heavily guarded compound where American and Iraqi forces protect government officials, diplomats, and private contractors. Initially, witnesses said the gunmen fought US troops. But the US military said late yesterday that American troops were not involved.

Haifa Street has been the site of previous battles between insurgents and coalition forces. Despite their overwhelming strength, US-led troops and Iraqi security forces have yet to secure areas surrounding Iraq's most vital facilities.

US soldiers and Iraqi police continued to be targeted by insurgents. On Sunday, attackers with machine guns killed 17 Iraqi civilians employed by the US military in Tikrit, shooting them as they stepped off a bus to work at a weapons destruction dump.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army, one of Iraq's most feared terror groups, claimed responsibility for the Tikrit attack in a statement on the group's website.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said three US soldiers were killed Sunday and two Marines were killed on Friday in fighting in western Anbar province, a region that includes the battleground cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. More than 1,270 US troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Marines have led major operations in the region, particularly in Fallujah, to destroy a network of Iraqi and other Arab fighters blamed for attacks on US and Iraqi forces and the kidnapping and killing of Western hostages.

The violence -- including a roadside bomb attack on a US patrol in Baghdad yesterday that wounded one soldier -- persisted despite offensives intended to suppress guerrillas ahead of elections.

Police said an Iraqi translator working for US forces in Ramadi, Bashar Mohammed, was kidnapped by militants Sunday.

US forces hit back in Haditha, a rural Anbar province town 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, yesterday, killing three insurgents and wounding four, according to Dr. Bassem Izaldeen of Haditha Hospital.

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