BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two kidnapped Italian aid workers were freed Tuesday after three weeks of captivity in Iraq, and six other hostages in the country were also released. American forces bombed a suspected militant hide-out in Fallujah and the military claimed its frequent strikes have taken a toll on the network of Jordanian-born terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
But in a sign of continuing insurgent strength, dozens of militants — some waving banners of al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad (search) group — drove freely through the streets of another central Iraqi city, Samarra, where U.S. and Iraqi commanders had claimed success weeks ago in suppressing the insurgency. The gunmen waved automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, stopping cars and taking music tapes from passengers — giving them tapes with Quranic recitations in exchange.
Jordan's King Abdullah II (search) warned in an interview published Tuesday that extremists — "the best organized faction" in Iraq — would emerge the victors if elections are held on schedule in January amid the current chaos.
The release of Italians Simona Pari (search) and Simona Torretta (search) brought a sense of relief to their home country — which has seen two Italian hostages killed since April and feared the two women had met the same fate after claims of their death were posted on the Web last week. While the Italians were being held, other kidnappers beheaded two American hostages.
"Finally a moment of joy," Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said, announcing to the Parliament in Rome that the two Italians and two Iraqis kidnapped with them were handed over to the Red Cross in Baghdad.
"The two girls are well and will be able to return to their loved ones tonight," he said, to cheers from lawmakers.
Pari and Torretta were kidnapped on Sept. 7 along with their Iraqi colleagues from the Baghdad office of their aid agency "Un Ponte Per ..." ("A Bridge To...") . Two different groups claimed responsibilty for the abductions, demanding the withdrawal of Italian troops from the country or the release of Iraqi female prisoners. The same two groups later put out Web statements saying the two Italians had been killed, but the Italian government cast doubt on the claims' authenticity.
News of the release came after a Muslim leader from Italy met with a local Muslim association in Baghdad on Tuesday to press for their freedom, though it was not immediately known if there was a connection. The two women, both 29-year-olds, had been working on school and water projects in Iraq.
Also freed were Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam, two Iraqis abducted with the Italians.
Meanwhile, four Egyptian telecommunications workers abducted last week were also released, their parent company, Orascom, announced. It said it was trying to win the freedom of two other Egyptian employees kidnapped at the same time. An Orascom spokesman would not comment on whether a ransom had been paid.
The Egyptian charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Farouq Mabrouk, said the kidnapping "was motivated by financial reasons."
More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship last year. Some kidnapping groups seek to extort ransom, others pursue the political motives of trying to force foreign forces or companies to quit Iraq. Many hostages have been killed.
Meanwhile, the violence that has been escalating in Iraq continued.
In the southern city of Basra, insurgents attacked a British military convoy, killing two British soldiers, the Ministry of Defense in London said.
U.S. warplanes struck in Fallujah at about 4 a.m., and there was no word on casualties. Early reports showed that no civilians were in the area when the blast went off, the military said.
Intelligence reports indicated that the militants targeted in the strike were "rising" associates of al-Zarqawi and "planning attacks using foreign homicide bombers in vehicles rigged with explosives," the military said.
The military said weeks of airstrikes in rebel-held Fallujah have exacted a heavy toll on al-Zarqawi's network and intelligence indicates the Al Qada-linked group has been forced to reorganize its leadership.
Al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for scores of homicide attacks and kidnappings across the country, as well as the recent beheading of two Americans. Last week, the death of a top deputy to al-Zarqawi, Abu al-Anas al-Shami, was reported slain in a U.S. strike just outside Baghdad, and his father confirmed the death.
Monday night, U.S. warplanes were spotted over the city and explosions were heard. Residents said they saw a plane firing rockets into the city, but U.S. Marine officers said only illumination rounds were fired. Dr. Walid Thamer of the Fallujah General Hospital said at least three people were killed and nine wounded in that attack. The casualties arrived at the hospital around 1:00 a.m., he said. The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
U.S. forces have not patrolled in Fallujah since ending a three-week siege of the city in April that left hundreds dead. Since then, insurgents have strengthened their grip on Fallujah, and military commanders say an assault may be inevitable to restore authority there ahead of nationwide elections slated for January.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned that a "decisive military solution" may soon be carries out in Fallujahif a political one is not found.
"I think we waited more than enough for Fallujah," the Iraqi leader said in an interview aired late Monday on the Arab television network Al-Arabiya. He indicated Iraqi security forces would be used in any operation against the city.
Another possible target of an offensive is Samarra, where U.S. troops entered briefly on Sept. 9 under a peace deal brokered with tribal leaders aimed at breaking the insurgents' hold over the city. Allawi and U.S. commanders hailed the move into Samarra as a success in the fight against militants.
But since then, attacks in the city have increased, and for the first time gunmen on Tuesday made a bold public showing with their two-hour drive through Samarra's streets. Two of the vehicles they drove were police pick-up trucks, apparently confiscated by the insurgents. Samarra has been under insurgent control and a virtual "no-go" area for U.S. troops since May 30.
Jordan's king, Abdullah, expressed his doubts that a proper election can be held "in the chaos of Iraq today," telling France's Le Figaro newspaper that "the situation is very, very difficult and in the immediate I don't see any chance of improvement."
"If elections take place in the current disorder, the best organized faction will be the extremists," Abdullah said. "The results will reflect this advantage of the extremists. In such a scenario, there will be no chance that the situation gets better."
In Baghdad, American troops and insurgents clashed Tuesday along central Baghdad's Haifa Street, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said, and half a dozen explosions rocked the city. Haifa Street, an insurgent stronghold, has been the scene of bloody car bomb attacks, raids and fierce firefights. Dozens of suspected insurgents have been arrested there, including Syrian, Sudanese and Egyptian nationals.
U.S. aircraft also struck in Baghdad's Sadr City, the scene of continuing battles with Shiite militiamen. One Iraqi was killed and three injured, said Qassem Saddam of the Imam Ali hospital in the district. THere was no immediate U.S. military comment.
In other developments:
— The U.S. military announced the detention of a suspected leader of an insurgent cell during a raid in the northern city of Kirkuk, the military said in a statement. Hussein Salman Mohammed al-Jbouri is suspected of leading a cell based in Kirkuk and nearby Hawijah that aligns itself with Ansar al-Sunna, a Sunni Muslim group that has claimed responsibility for the beheading of 12 Nepalese hostages, the military said.
— Gunmen killed five members of Iraq's intelligence agency in Basra as they were returning a civilian freed from kidnappers to his family, said Maj. Jasim al-Darraji, an intelligence officer. The man was rescued by Iraqi authorities Monday and as the agents approached his family's residence, the gunmen opened fire. Authorities have been able to free some 15 hostages in Basra and capture about 30 members of kidnapping gangs in the past two months, al-Darraji said.