BAGHDAD - With attack helicopters circling overhead, U.S. and Iraqi forces waged an intense battle yesterday to clear armed men from high-rise buildings in a strategic Baghdad neighborhood that was the scene of similar combat two weeks ago.

The fighting along Haifa Street, a Sunni Arab-dominated area on the west bank of the Tigris River, began before dawn and lasted well into the day, with insurgents firing down from tall buildings, U.S. military officials said.

"We have intelligence information that the terrorist group is back and trying to take some other places," said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "It's a very strategic and important location. It's in the middle of Baghdad; it has a view of all of Baghdad."

The recurring fighting on Haifa Street illustrates the severe challenges facing the 17,500 additional U.S. troops President Bush plans to send to Baghdad to try to secure the city. In a treacherous, cramped urban setting, and surrounded by civilians, U.S. and Iraqi troops have repeatedly fought for control of neighborhoods in the capital, only to have insurgents return to fight again.

Yesterday, U.S. and Iraqi forces came under attack around Haifa Street and responded with mortar fire, the military said in a statement. "As light broke on the city, troops met enemy resistance, including handheld grenades, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades from high-rise buildings," the statement said.

The military said it seized a cache of weapons, including numerous rocket-propelled grenades and antitank rounds, during the raid.

More than 30 suspected insurgents were arrested during the operation, and about 25 were killed, Dabbagh said. A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, said he was aware of seven arrests and did not know whether anyone had died.

A U.S. soldier was shot dead yesterday in central Baghdad, the military said in a statement. It was unclear whether the soldier died in the Haifa Street operation.

The military also disclosed yesterday that two Marines were killed Tuesday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters that he was encouraged by early indications that Maliki was taking a tougher stance against Shiite militias in Baghdad.

"We will have to wait and see what happens, but I believe that recent trends . . . [are] more positive than in the past," Khalilzad said. "But there is ongoing concern about death-squad activities, about the future of the militias, concern that they might be lying low, avoiding a conflict now, in order to fight another day."

Khalilzad also discussed briefly the five U.S. security contractors, employees of Blackwater USA, killed in Baghdad on Tuesday. U.S. officials have said a Blackwater helicopter was shot down while assisting a U.S. Embassy convoy that came under attack.

"We lost five fine men," Khalilzad said. "They helped me; I've traveled with them, so I went and visited them and saw them while in the morgue yesterday. I felt very bad, because as I said, I knew these people."

Khalilzad said the helicopter crash was under investigation. U.S. officials did not confirm reports that some of the contractors might have been shot after their small helicopter crashed.

In Baghdad, Iraqi police said they had found 17 bodies of people shot in the head during the last 24 hours. Mortar shells killed at least six civilians and makeshift bombs in markets killed at least eight, according to Brig. Gen. Abdullah Muhsin of the Interior Ministry.

Lawmakers Criticize Blair's Iraq Policy

British lawmakers criticized Prime Minister Tony Blair's Iraq policy yesterday

in the first major parliamentary debate on the invasion since 2004, but the British leader skipped the session and rejected calls to withdraw troops by October.

Before the session began, Blair said a proposal by opposition Liberal Democrats

to pull troops out was irresponsible.

"That would send the most disastrous signal to the people that we are fighting in Iraq," Blair said. "It's a policy that, whatever

its superficial attractions may be, is actually

deeply irresponsible."

Among the lawmakers who spoke out against Blair's Iraq policy was George Galloway, a former Labor lawmaker expelled from the party in 2003 after he urged British soldiers not to fight in Iraq.

Britain and the United States have installed

"a group of warlords in Baghdad" bent on settling sectarian scores, he said. "It's not

a government. It's Martin Scorsese's Gangs

of New York."

- Associated PressEndText