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Contractors flee Iraq, even as U.S. plans to bolster forces

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Foreign contractors scrambled to catch planes leaving Iraq on Thursday, even as three Japanese hostages were released and the Pentagon announced it's beefing up U.S. forces in Iraq by extending tours of duty.

In another tense day, an Iranian diplomat was killed in Baghdad, two American soldiers died, and top U.S. military officials warned that they cannot wait much longer before launching new offensive operations against insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf.

The deaths of the two soldiers, one by a bomb and the other from an "acute cardiac event," raised the April toll to 89, the most in one month since U.S. troops arrived in Iraq 13 months ago.

Elsewhere, Arabic satellite television stations broadcast an audio-taped message said to be from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The tape cited the March 11 train bombings in Madrid and offered a truce with those European nations that withdraw their troops from Muslim countries. Several European leaders quickly rejected the offer.

The State Department ordered all non-essential personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia and their families to leave the country. The move comes after a new round of violence between Saudi authorities and Islamic militants left four Saudi police officers dead this week.

"We are concerned. The threat level has gone up," Secretary of State Colin Powell said.

In Iraq, Russia evacuated several hundred workers in three charter planes Thursday. Other countries also have urged their civilian contractors to leave Iraq until the crisis subsides.

The latest developments followed the grim announcement late Wednesday that an Italian security contractor had been savagely executed by his captors.

Leaflets were distributed in various neighborhoods in Baghdad warning residents to stay home for a week because insurgents would "transfer the resistance fire" to the capital. It was signed by "your brothers the Mujahadeen companies."

Coalition officials have said that about 40 hostages from a dozen countries have been kidnapped, though many have been released. Japanese officials were investigating a report that two more Japanese civilians were taken hostage.

The three Japanese who were released were handed over to the Islamic Clerics Association and later taken to the Japanese Embassy.

When their blindfolds were removed, they initially didn't comprehend that they were free.

"I thought I would die," said Naoko Takato, 34, a volunteer aid worker. "Is this really Baghdad?" she asked. Takato later collapsed in tears of relief.

The release was greeted with joyful screams in Japan, where family members of the hostages were in the midst of a news conference in Tokyo. Family members crowded around a small television set and broke into elated screams when the hostages appeared on screen.

"Wow, here he is!" Noriaki Imai's brother, Yosuke, shouted. Imai's father, Takashi, collapsed on his knees and bowed to the television, putting his hands together as if he were praying, overcome with tears and unable to speak. A crowd of supporters surrounded the relatives, jumping for joy amid tears and laughter.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that 20,000 American soldiers who'd been scheduled to return home would remain in Iraq for up to three more months. About 6,000 are in the National Guard or Army Reserve.

The move will allow the United States to maintain 135,000 troops in Iraq in the coming months.

"Needless to say, we regret having to extend those individuals," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. "They had anticipated being in country ... something like up to 365 days. But the country is at war and we need to do what is necessary to succeed."

About 11,000 of the extended troops are from the Army's 1st Armored Division based in Germany and Fort Riley, Kan. Another 3,000 come from the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Polk, La. Several hundred more are from three other bases. The 6,000 guardsmen and reservists come from more than 20 states.

Rumsfeld said Thursday that the death toll was worse than he expected. A year ago, he said, "I certainly would not have estimated that we would have had the number of individuals that we have had lost in the last week."

In a visit to Baghdad, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged a "significant security challenge" in Iraq.

Referring to the situations in Fallujah and Najaf, Myers said negotiations were under way to bring peaceful resolutions, but he said those efforts "can't go on . . . forever."

Marines have suspended attacks on Fallujah, a mostly Sunni Muslim city, where four American security contractors were killed and mutilated two weeks ago. Hundreds of Iraqis have since been killed there, fueling anger in other cities against the coalition.

A senior military official said Thursday that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 gunmen fighting Marines in Fallujah.

In Najaf, there was little progress toward ending the standoff between radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the American troops massed outside the city limits.

The military is seeking to arrest al-Sadr in connection with the slaying of a pro-Western Shiite cleric a year ago. U.S. military officials also want to destroy al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which draws from the thousands of the largely poor and uneducated Iraqis who are the core of his following.

Many residents carried around gray and white leaflets denouncing al-Sadr that witnesses said had been dropped onto the city by a coalition plane the night before.

"Muqtada al-Sadr is a murderer and has to stand trial, but now he's trying to flee," said the Monopoly-money sized leaflets in Arabic. "He and his people are responsible for what is happening in our holy cities, from chaos to killing innocents."

An Iranian delegation that arrived in Iraq the day before to help mediate the crisis delayed its trip to Najaf after a senior Iranian diplomat was shot dead as he drove out of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

The delegation could have some influence on al-Sadr, who while sharply critical of Iranian influence in Iraq, would like to establish a Shiite theocracy similar to Iran's.

Al-Sadr, meanwhile, remained out of sight, although several members of the Mahdi Army said they spoke to the cleric in his office Thursday morning near the Grand Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf and that his spirits were high.

"He's strong like a lion," said Wossam, one of the fighters who saw him and who would only give his first name.

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(Moran reported from Baghdad, Nelson from Najaf, and Moritsugu from Washington. Special correspondent Emiko Doi in Tokyo and Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040415 USIRAQ allies

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