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4 bodies found near Baghdad; 40 foreigners held hostage, U.S. says

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Four unidentified bodies were found near Baghdad on Tuesday after U.S. officials said that kidnappers in Iraq are holding about 40 foreigners from 12 nations. They vowed not to negotiate for their freedom, in an eerie echo of the 1980s Beirut hostage crisis.

"We will not negotiate with terrorists and kidnappers," said coalition adviser Dan Senor, revealing that the FBI and other international law enforcement agencies had been assigned to the case. "We are working to pursue the hostages and the hostage-takers."

The abductions of foreigners may be a new tactic in an underground war to drive the West from Iraq.

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman in Washington, said coalition authorities in Baghdad were in the process of identifying the bodies.

Initially, the bodies were believed to have been mutilated, but a second spokesperson said later that that could not be confirmed.

The State Department had contacted the families of the seven Americans who are missing.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. military lost two more American soldiers and another helicopter, but it reported the first decline in the week-old surge of confrontations between U.S. forces and insurgents.

The death toll so far this month has reached 83, with 560 wounded. This is deadlier than the opening 13 days of the war. The number of wounded so far in April already exceeds that for the worst single month by 220.

Among the 40 foreigners believed held captive were two U.S. soldiers; seven Americans working for a Pentagon contractor; a French television journalist; three Japanese civilians; a Czech television news crew; an East Jerusalem Arab aid worker and four Italians who'd been working as security contractors for a U.S. firm. All 12 nations weren't immediately known.

Kidnappers had taken Russians, Ukrainians and Chinese as captives, in two separate seizures, but they set them free within days. U.S. officials on Monday had set the hostage figure at 30.

U.S. officials provided few details Tuesday on the kidnappings, saying they didn't want to tip their hand to the kidnappers.

Hostage-taking bedeviled U.S.-Lebanon policy for years and led the Reagan administration, which also vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, to secret arms-for-hostages negotiations with Iran.

Left unchecked, the development could further erode foreign support for rebuilding Iraq. On learning that a TV reporter had been taken, France's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday instructed that "all French nationals currently in Iraq leave the country and that those who plan to travel to Iraq postpone their voyage."

Germany offered similar warnings a day earlier and invasion ally Britain warned against any nonessential travel to Iraq—a country where the U.S.-led coalition had encouraged foreign investment and international organizations to assist in the post-Saddam Hussein transition to democracy.

The latest known captives were the four Italians, who appeared in a videotape broadcast by the Al Jazeera satellite news channel. Crude home-movie-style footage showed four men sitting on the floor of a building and displaying passports. Their captors stood behind them with AK-47 rifles, their faces hidden by scarves. Al Jazeera reported that the kidnappers were demanding that Italy quit the coalition and withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq.

The longest-held known captives are three Japanese civilians—two aid workers and a photographer—who were being held by a previously unheard of group called the "Mujahadeen Brigades." The organization—Mujahadeen means "holy warriors"—demanded that Japan withdraw its coalition troops within three days. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refused to negotiate, and the deadline passed without word from the hostage takers.

Coalition officials see the kidnappings as opportunistic, meaning they were targeted not at individuals but at foreigners. Most of the hostages were believed to have been snatched along a stretch of highway from Baghdad to Fallujah, notably around Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb with a newly reopened prison that was notorious during the Saddam era for its torture and executions.

The missing Americans included two soldiers and seven workers for a Halliburton subsidiary who disappeared after their convoy was ambushed Friday near Abu Ghraib.

Up the road, violence continued in and around the Anbar Province hotspots in Fallujah and Ramadi. A Marine was killed in a mortar attack, one of two Pentagon casualties reported in Iraq, on the same day that an American helicopter crew crash-landed near Fallujah, forced from the sky by insurgent small-arms fire. U.S. forces rescued the trio aboard, then destroyed the damaged chopper with explosives to ensure that enemy forces did not recover it.

Coalition officials blamed "foreign fighters and international terrorists" for the surging violence this month. Earlier, officials had blamed Iraqi insurgents.

Senor indicated that Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian national whom U.S. officials frequently blame for attacks, is now operating in or around Fallujah.

"There is a sense of frustration that we're hearing among the silent majority of Fallujans about the foreign fighters and international terrorists that are hanging their hats in Fallujah right now, consequently imposing enormous burden and misery, and death in some cases," Senor said.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said coalition forces around Fallujah, which include Marines and a Kurdish unit brought from the north, are facing fighters far more sophisticated than the ordinary Iraqis who have turned their Iraq Army-issue AK-47s against the Americans. The Marines recently uncovered an arms cache that includes Draganov sniper rifles, a sophisticated weapon at a time when the Marines have been hit by waves of ambushes.

A coalition official confirmed that the analysis of the enemy in Fallujah is new, based on recent discoveries, but wouldn't elaborate.

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(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040413 USIRAQ hostages

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