BAGHDAD - U.S. warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas of Iraq on Tuesday, targeting fighters loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while Jordan's king said Iraq was too dangerous for elections to be held in January.
King Abdullah, one of Washington's staunchest Middle East allies, said he didn't see how national polls could go ahead amid such violence. His comments came after Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted the insurgency was worsening.
"It seems impossible to me to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today," the king told French daily Le Figaro before meeting President Jacques Chirac in Paris.
"If the elections take place in the current disorder, the best-organized faction will be that of the extremists and the result will reflect that advantage."
U.S. forces struck against militants across the country.
In Falluja, the military said it had hit a house used by Zarqawi's followers, who have claimed responsibility for several attacks in Iraq and the beheadings of foreign hostages.
It said the air strike targeted high-level members of the group, but did not say how many people were killed. The U.S. military last week claimed to have killed around 100 of Zarqawi's followers in the past few weeks.
In Sadr City, a poor Shi'ite Muslim district of northeastern Baghdad, residents said U.S. aircraft and tanks bombarded homes in some neighborhoods, ratcheting up operations against Shi'ite militiamen who have the area largely under their control.
The strikes wiped out the district's power, residents said.
In a statement, U.S. forces said they had conducted "precision strikes" on various targets, and at the same time denied reports on Arabic TV and in Western newspapers of heavy civilian casualties, with up to 10 killed and 46 wounded.
Separately, the military said it had captured an insurgent leader during a raid north of Baghdad. A statement said Hussein Salman Mohammad al-Jabburi was seized near Kirkuk on Monday.
In the southern city of Basra, insurgents ambushed a convoy of armored Land Rovers, killing two British soldiers, a British army spokesman said. The deaths raised to 25 the number of British troops killed in action in Iraq.
And in Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, police and witnesses said a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle near a U.S. convoy, killing several people, although the reports could not immediately be verified.
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Zarqawi and the group he leads, known as Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War), are the U.S. military's prime enemy in Iraq. Zarqawi, who Washington says is allied to Osama bin Laden, has a $25 million bounty to his name.
The militant is believed to have built a stronghold in Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, since the U.S. military withdrew from the city in April following weeks of heavy fighting. Since then, the town has become a magnet for Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters, the military says.
Zarqawi's group says it kidnapped British engineer Kenneth Bigley and two Americans from their home in Baghdad 12 days ago. The group demanded that female prisoners be released from jails in Iraq, a demand that was not met. The two Americans were subsequently beheaded and their deaths posted on the Internet.
Bigley, 62, is also threatened with beheading.
Palestinian officials said on Tuesday Palestinian President Yasser Arafat would lobby for his release.
While Bigley's fate remains uncertain, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped nearly two months ago was freed on Monday.
An Egyptian telecoms worker, one of six kidnapped last week, was also freed, Cairo's embassy in Baghdad said. Efforts were being made to have the remaining five released.
The Iranian's release raised hopes for the fate of two French journalists seized by the same group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, on Aug. 20.
There is also growing optimism over two Italian female aid workers kidnapped from their Baghdad offices on Sept. 7.
Al-Rai al-Aam, one of Kuwait's leading dailies, quoted sources "very close to Islamic factions" as saying kidnappers had agreed to free Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, as early as this week, for a $1 million ransom.
The Italian Prime Minister's office said it had no immediate comment on the report, splashed across Italian newspapers.
Additional reporting by Fadil al-Badrani in Falluja and Tom Heneghan in Paris.
© 2004 Reuters Ltd