European Commission President Romano Prodi is calling for the release of foreigners who have been taken hostage in Iraq. The call came during Mr. Prodi's visit to China, where he also discussed the issue of human rights with Chinese leaders.

The European Commission leader, who personally opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq since its beginning, says the situation in Iraq is "as bad as can be."

Television images Wednesday showed four Italian security guards being held by militant Islamists in Iraq. The four were the latest among the dozens of foreigners who have been taken hostage recently, highlighting what Romano Prodi referred to as a sign that the war is involving an increasing number of countries.

Speaking to reporters while visiting Beijing, Mr. Prodi denounced the kidnappings and called for the captives' release.

"It is absolutely fundamental that they be released," he said. "This is against any civilized rules. We have to do everything so that this uncivilized action is put to an end."

The European Commission president is on a three-day visit to China, where his talks with officials have centered on trade. The subject of human rights has also been on the agenda, especially as the European Union weighs whether to lift a weapons embargo that it imposed on China following the government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Eager to seal trade deals with China, EU officials have said they think Beijing is improving its human rights record, and have been hoping to keep their conversations with Chinese leaders friendly. Mr. Prodi said he was compelled, nonetheless, to bring up the subject of rights.

"Clearly, I recognize the progress done. But, also, I underline how this is important for European government and even more for European public opinion. But, clearly this is a process," he said.

The EU position conflicts with that of the United States, which recently condemned China for backsliding on human rights agreements.

The United States recently pushed a resolution condemning China's human rights record at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The action prompted China to announce the suspension of its human rights dialogue with Washington.