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A happy return home for hostages

Two Italian aid workers held hostage in Iraq for three weeks were freed on Tuesday and immediately flown to a rapturous homecoming in Rome.

Four Egyptians who were kidnapped last week at a telecommunications office in Baghdad also were released.

The Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, were dragged from their aid organization's Baghdad office on Sept. 7. Their fate had been in question as recently as last week, when they were falsely reported to have been beheaded. About a dozen other foreigners taken hostage in Iraq have been killed in that manner.

But all doubts about the Italians evaporated late Tuesday when they were shown on Arabic-language television, lifting black veils and smiling as they were handed over to a representative of the Italian Red Cross, Maurizio Scelli.

The women were flown to Rome's Ciampino airport, where they were joined by their families before stepping off the aircraft and into a crowd of military personnel and officials, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The women wore long caftans, smiled and held hands, appearing serene as they entered the airport building.

"I felt chills when I heard the news," Manuela Mancucci, 24, a street vendor in downtown Rome. "I'm so happy for them and their families."

In south Rome and in Rimini on the Adriatic coast, crowds gathered around the homes of the two women as news of their release circulated Tuesday afternoon. The kidnapping had been keenly felt by Italians, largely because the women who came to be known across the country as "the two Simonas" or "our girls" had gone to Iraq to provide humanitarian aid.

Gianluca DeAngelis, 31, a lawyer from Rome, said he felt "happiness, joy, super relief" at the women's release. "Let's hope this is the moment for Italy to get out of Iraq," he said.

A Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Rai al-Aam, which had reported the women's imminent release for the past two days, said their captors agreed to accept a $1-million ransom. But Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said there was no ransom, according to state-run RAI television, and Berlusconi said: "I believe our behavior has been beyond reproach."

A man identified as a French negotiator told an Arab television network that he met with French journalists Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunotheld, who have been held hostage, and that they will be released.

But in Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman denied any knowledge of a deal.

Meanwhile, fighting persisted in parts of the country, prompting a suggestion from one Iraqi leader to postpone elections scheduled for January rather than hold them only in areas that were largely peaceful.

"The idea of having partial elections is very appalling," said President Ghazi al-Yawer, whose post is largely ceremonial. He said the future stability of Iraq depended on balloting that included every constituency.

Yawer's remarks appeared to put him at odds with interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and U.S. officials who have said promised elections should proceed even if insurgents hold parts of the country. But King Abdullah of neighboring Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, also voiced caution about a partial vote.

"It seems impossible to me to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today," he said. "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."

In other news, U.S. forces launched airstrikes on the neighborhood of Sadr City for the second consecutive day Tuesday.

At least three people were injured, according to officials at Sadr City's Jawader Hospital. It was unclear whether insurgents were killed or injured.

Blair defends war

BRIGHTON, England _ Prime Minister Tony Blair, skirting a direct apology, acknowledged to his Labour Party Tuesday that intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq was wrong, but insisted the world was safer with Saddam Hussein in prison.

In a rousing address to the party's annual conference, interrupted twice by delegates booing and heckling, Blair defended the war and said Labour members _ even war opponents _ must believe he backed the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq to protect Britain.

"The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that and accept it," said Blair, whose primary reason for backing the U.S.-led war was the threat of those weapons.

"And the problem is, I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power."

Two British soldiers died Tuesday, killed by insurgents who ambushed a British army convoy near the southern city of Basra, bringing the total killed in Iraq to 67.

Blair paid tribute to the two soldiers and expressed solidarity with Briton Kenneth Bigley, who was kidnapped in Baghdad.

"They are in our thoughts and prayers," he said.

Protesters slipped inside to twice interrupt Blair's address, one of them shouting that he had "blood on his hands."

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, asserted that Blair's apology was too conditional. "I certainly didn't hear an apology about the war," he said.