AFP: An Iranian diplomat was freed Monday after a 55-day hostage ordeal at the hands of the same Islamic militant group which is holding two French newsmen, as 12 people were killed in fresh Iraq violence.
However there was no word on the fate of British hostage Kenneth Bigley as British Muslim leaders wrapped up a ... AFP

BAGHDAD - An Iranian diplomat was freed Monday after a 55-day hostage ordeal at the hands of the same Islamic militant group which is holding two French newsmen, as 12 people were killed in fresh Iraq violence.

However there was no word on the fate of British hostage Kenneth Bigley as British Muslim leaders wrapped up a two-day mercy mission to Iraq to try to save the 62-year-old engineer whose two US colleagues were executed last week.

Diplomat Fereydun Jahani, who was kidnapped on August 4 on the road from Baghdad to the Shiite pilgrimage city of Karbala, where he had been due to open an Iranian consulate, insisted no deal had been struck for his freedom.

"Their first claim was the non-interference of Iran in Iraq's internal affairs. When they understood that Iran had no such intentions and that we diplomats were here to serve Iranians living in Iraq, they decided to release me," Jahani told AFP from the relative security of Iran's Baghdad mission.

"They also demanded the release of Iraqi prisoners detained in Iran but were convinced by Iran's insistence that it no longer held any Iraqis."

The Sunni Arab militant group that seized the diplomat had said it did so to punish him "for stirring sectarian strife and for activities outside his diplomatic duties".

Iran is reviled by hardliners among Iraq's ousted Sunni Arab elite for its huge influence among the country's Shiite majority.

His release was likely to revive hopes that the Islamic Army in Iraq might also finally free French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who have been held hostage since August 20.

Two leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain left Baghdad following a 48-hour mission aimed at establishing contact with Bigley's captors.

There was no immediate word on why they had decided to wrap up their mission or what consultations they had held since their arrival on Saturday night.

Bigley's brother Paul said he had received information the engineer was still alive but accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of sitting idly by.

An Italian Muslim leader was meanwhile in the Jordanian capital ahead of a mission to Baghdad to lobby for the release of captive aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari.

Jordan's King Abdullah II said in an interview published Monday that he thought the two women snatched from their Baghdad office on September 7 were still alive.

A day after US Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged the insurgency confronting US troops in Iraq was worsening, a US soldier was killed north of Baghdad.

His convoy was heading back from the site of a traffic accident which claimed the life of another soldier when insurgents opened fire, the military said.

A US air raid on one of Baghdad's most densely populated neighbourhoods -- the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City -- killed five people, medics said.

The US military said it had killed four targeted militia commanders and destroyed militia positions.

North of the capital, five Iraqi farmers were killed and one wounded in a roadside bombing near the town of Baquba, police and witnesses said.

In the main northern city of Mosul, insurgents detonated a car bomb against an Iraqi national guard patrol, killing two guardsmen and wounding three, medics said.

The fledgling security force has been the target of relentless attack in recent months and suffered a fresh blow to its credibility Sunday with the announcement a senior commander had been arrested on suspicion of collaborating with the insurgents.

The US army was plagued by its own credibility problems Monday as two more soldiers were charged with the murder of an Iraqi civilian.

And in Washington, US servicewoman Lynndie England -- photographed holding a naked prisoner by a leash at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison -- was ordered to face court martial on charges of conspiracy to mistreat prisoners, assault and indecent acts.

As world oil prices surged to new records on the back of unrest in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi leaders were able to take some comfort as exports matched their highest level since last year's US-led invasion.

With benchmark light sweet crude reaching 49.74 dollars a barrel in New York, Iraq's exports were running at between 2.2 million and 2.4 million barrels per day, industry officials said.

But the deaths of two Iraqis as they apparently attempted to plant a bomb on the main export pipeline to Turkey hammered home the persistent threat of sabotage to the country's key hard currency earner.