Militants released two French journalists yesterday after holding them for four months, bringing to a happy conclusion one of the longest hostage ordeals in Iraq since the U.S.S.-led invasion. There...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Militants released two French journalists yesterday after holding them for four months, bringing to a happy conclusion one of the longest hostage ordeals in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion.

There was jubilation in France but few details in Iraq about the timing and circumstances under which the kidnappers turned the hostages over to officials of the French Embassy in Baghdad.

The abductors released a communiqué claiming they had freed the two veteran Middle East correspondents after determining the men were not spies for the U.S.-led military coalition.

The communiqué from the Islamic Army in Iraq also cited France’s opposition to the war in Iraq.

After the two men were seized Aug. 20, the abductors had threatened to kill them if France did not drop a new law banning religious symbols such as Islamic head scarves from public schools. But the French government refused, and there were no concrete public demands in recent months.

Marine suicides hit five-year high

LOS ANGELES — Suicides of U.S. Marines have reached their highest level in five years, prompting a Defense Department effort to encourage Marines to seek mental-health services, a Marine Corps spokesman said yesterday.

But spokesman Bryan Driver said there was no evidence linking the higher suicide rate with the long tours of duty and front-line fighting Marines have engaged in Iraq.

There have been 32 confirmed or probable suicides among 178,000 Marines this year, surpassing the 28 who killed themselves in 2001 as the United States invaded Afghanistan, Driver said.

The Marines, the smallest of the U.S. armed services by number of troops, have had the military’s highest suicide rate — about 25 per year among 178,000 active-duty troops since 1999, the year the government began keeping detailed records.

The suicide data were first reported yesterday by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The military suicide rates remain well below suicide rates of about 21 per 100,000 for similar civilian populations, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Mass grave reported to have been found

TUZ ZAWA, Iraq — Dogs digging for bones on a barren patch of earth in northern Iraq have alerted villagers to a mass grave that may contain as many as 50 bodies, a local official said yesterday.

“We found some bones,” said Abdullah Mohammed, who heads a unit dealing with displaced people in the city of Kirkuk. “After that, we began excavating and we discovered that it’s a mass grave,” he told Reuters.

Mohammed said villagers pulled about 20 bodies from the site Monday before the Iraqi National Guard sealed it off.

Forensic investigators and other specialists have been called in to make a full examination. Evidence from such graves could be used in trials of officials in Saddam Hussein’s toppled government.

The grave is in the village of Tuz Zawa, about six miles west of Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city in the oil fields about 160 miles north of Baghdad.

During his rule, Saddam tried to turn Kirkuk into an Arab city by driving out Kurds and Turkmen who had lived there for centuries. Villagers in Tuz Zawa think the bodies found Monday are those of Kurds killed during Saddam’s time.

Marine’s survivors seek his Yahoo! file

WIXOM, Mich. — The family of a Marine killed in Iraq is pleading with Internet giant Yahoo! for access to his e-mail account, which the company says is off-limits under its privacy policy.

Lance Cpl. Justin Ellsworth, 20, was killed by a roadside bomb Nov. 13 during a foot patrol in Al Anbar province. The family wants the complete e-mail file that Ellsworth maintained, including notes to and from others.

“I want to be able to remember him in his words. I know he thought he was doing what he needed to do. I want to have that for the future,” said John Ellsworth, Justin’s father. “It’s the last thing I have of my son.”

But without the account’s password, the request has been repeatedly denied. In addition, Yahoo! policy calls for erasing all accounts that are inactive for 90 days. Yahoo! also maintains that all users agree at sign-up that rights to a member’s ID or contents within an account terminate upon death.

“While we sympathize with any grieving family, Yahoo! accounts and any contents therein are nontransferable” even after death, said Karen Mahon, a Yahoo! spokeswoman.

Italy to discuss phased withdrawal

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi said yesterday that Italy would discuss a phased withdrawal of its troops with the Iraqi government that will be formed after the January elections, but he added that no dates have been set, Italian media reported.

Berlusconi insisted that “Italian troops will stay in Iraq for as long as needed” — reaffirming a long-standing government position.

Italy sent about 3,000 troops — the U.S.-led coalition’s third-largest contingent — to help rebuild the country after the April 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Also yesterday, the Polish-led security force in central Iraq transferred responsibility for the province of Karbala to the United States, a spokesman said.

Poland commands an international force that numbers about 6,000 troops in central Iraq.

The transfer of authority comes as part of a long-standing plan that also involved the Nov. 30 handover of Qadisiyah province from U.S. to Polish command.

The Polish-led force, which includes 2,400 Poles, now has responsibility for three Iraqi provinces — Babil, Wasit and Qadisiyah.

The Netherlands is sticking to its plan to withdraw its 1,350 troops from Iraq in March despite pressure from the United States, Britain and Japan to extend the mission, Dutch news agency ANP reported yesterday.

Hungary has said its 300 troops will be brought home from Iraq by the end of March, and Poland intends to scale back its forces after the Iraqi elections.