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French Still Hopeful for Release of Hostages in Iraq, Violence Plagues Western Cities - 2004-09-03

The Shiite cities of Kufa and Najaf remained calm Friday, but U.S. troops continued to battle insurgents in Sunni areas of west of Baghdad. French officials remain hopeful two French reporters will soon be released unharmed.

Iraqi police restricted access to Friday prayers in the city of Kufa to prevent violence from erupting there.

So far calm prevails in Kufa and nearby Najaf, where a peace agreement ended a three-week uprising by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Iraq's interim government is also trying to ease tensions in the Shi'ite neighborhood of Baghdad by offering to provide new funds for improving conditions in the slum area.

French officials remain hopeful that two French reporters will be released unharmed. Officials have received information the two men are still alive and are being well treated. The militants who had kidnapped them threatened to kill them if France did not reverse a ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools.

Late Thursday, word came the two journalists had been turned over to another militant group who may be more willing to release them.

U.S. forces continued to battle insurgents in the mostly Sunni areas west of Baghdad. Fallujah and Ramadi are considered strongholds of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The continuing instability of Iraq has become a focus of debate in the U.S. Presidential race.

During this week's Republican Convention President Bush once again defended his decision to go to war in Iraq as a way to make the world safer.

And he promised to bring U.S. troops home as soon as they help stabilize the country. "We will help new leaders to train their armies and move toward elections and get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible," he said. "And then, our troops will return home with the honor they have earned."

Presidential hopeful John Kerry reasserted his belief that President Bush misled the U.S. public on why he waged war in Iraq. He made the comments at a campaign rally Thursday while defending his decorated war record against Republican charges his medals were not deserved. "I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq," he said.

The two men are using such foreign policy issues as Iraq and the war on terrorism to persuade the undecided voters of their leadership capabilities.