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Kidnappers Raid Phone Firm in Iraq

Gunmen abducted six Egyptians and four Iraqis working for Iraq's mobile phone company, seizing two in a bold raid on the firm's Baghdad office and the others outside the capital, officials said Friday, the latest in a string of kidnappings that have underscored the country's fragile security.

Also Friday, a rocket hit the busy Baghdad thoroughfare Palestine Street. The U.S. military said four Iraqis were killed and 14 were wounded. There were no American casualties.

Mortars exploded earlier near the Italian Embassy in the capital, slightly wounding three Iraqis, the Foreign Ministry in Rome said. The mortars were fired shortly after 6 a.m. when the embassy offices were closed, the Foreign Ministry said.

U.S. Marines fired artillery rounds at militants in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah (search), west of Baghdad, the military said. The shooting came after Marines saw insurgents getting out of a vehicle with a mounted machine gun, said 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a Marine spokesman. There was no word on casualties.

American warplanes have repeatedly targeted the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) in recent weeks with attacks in and around Fallujah.

Al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad (search) group has beheaded two Americans who were kidnapped in Baghdad a week ago along with another civil engineer, Kenneth Bigley (search). The militants have threatened to kill the 62-year-old Briton next unless Iraqi women are freed from prison.

The British Embassy in Baghdad distributed some 50,000 leaflets in Baghdad with a plea from Bigley's family for residents to help find him and a phone number to call with information. "A family man called Ken Bigley is being held somewhere in your community," the leaflet said. "Ken's mother, brothers, wife and child love him dearly. We are appealing for your help."

In London, the Muslim Council of Britain (search) said it was sending a pair of negotiators to Baghdad to try to win Bigley's release. Iqbal Sacranie, the group's secretary-general, urged Bigley's captors to free him, saying, "Islam does not allow us to harm the innocent."

Two of the Egyptians were kidnapped Thursday night when gunmen stormed into the office of the Iraqna mobile phone company in Baghdad's upscale Harthiya neighborhood, Iraqi Interior Ministry official Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.

The kidnappers hustled the two communications engineers into a black BMW and drove them away, he said. Another ministry official said the gunmen tied up guards at the office.

The men were all working for Iraqna Mobile Net or contractors, according to Farouq Mabrouk, an Egyptian Embassy official. In addition, he said four Egyptian engineers and four Iraqis were kidnapped Wednesday while working outside Baghdad. One Iraqi was later freed, he said, but he gave no other details.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnappings. In Cairo, a senior official of MobiNil, parent company of Iraqna Mobile Net, said he believed the two Egyptians abducted Thursday were not kidnapped for political reasons. He declined to comment further and insisted on anonymity.

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq — some by anti-U.S. insurgents and some by criminals seeking ransom — and at least 26 of them have been killed by their captors.

Two Italian aid workers were kidnapped from their Baghdad office last week, and two groups have issued statements claiming to have killed the women because their demands — the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq or the freeing of Iraqi women detainees — were not met. The Italian government, however, has cast doubt on the claims.

Several Egyptians have been abducted in the past, including a diplomat, Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, seized in July by militants angry at Egyptian plans to send security experts to Iraq. Qutb was freed after three days of intense diplomatic efforts. In August, al-Zarqawi's group claimed to have beheaded an Egyptian hostage they called a spy, but the death was never confirmed.

The hostage-takings have highlighted the extremely volatile security in Iraq, a situation that is only expected to get worse in the run-up to elections scheduled to take place by the end of January.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Thursday that parts of Iraq might have to be excluded from the elections because of continuing violence.

With car bombs, shootings and kidnappings escalating and several cities effectively under insurgent control, there are concerns that Iraq will not be ready to hold a vote by the Jan. 31 deadline. But Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, are eager to hold elections since they expect to dominate whatever government emerges.

Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search) is insisting elections promised for January must be held on time, an aide said.

The leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite Muslim political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, echoed that demand.

"We reject any attempt to delay the elections under any pretext," said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), in a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Thursday, vowed not to let violence derail the election timetable. He said 14 or 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe."

However, at least six provinces — Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Nineveh — have been the scene of significant attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi authorities in the past month. The only areas not plagued by bloodshed are the three northern provinces controlled by Kurds. The situation in many areas, however, is unknown since journalists' travel is restricted by security fears.

Rumsfeld, at a Senate committee, was asked how elections could be held if restive cities remained in revolt when U.N.-supervised elections are to be held.

"So be it," Rumsfeld said. He said "it could be" that violence will be worse by January. The result, he said, would be "an election that's not quite perfect." But he said that some balloting would be better than none at all.

However, Rumsfeld was contradicted by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

"We're going to have an election that is free and open and that has to be open to all citizens. It's got to be our best effort to get it into troubled areas as well," Armitage told a House committee Friday when asked about Rumsfeld's statement.

The most violent regions of Iraq are in the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad. If voting is not held there, it could anger the Sunni minority — which already feels alienated after losing the dominance it held for centuries — and prompt some Sunnis to reject any government that emerges from the vote.