- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Assailants ambushed a team of Spanish intelligence officers yesterday, firing rocket-propelled grenades and rifles at their SUVs and killing seven agents in a bloody new attack on U.S. allies in Iraq.

One Spanish agent escaped the assault in Mahmudiyah, 18 miles south of Baghdad, Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said in Madrid.

The attack came a little more than two weeks after 19 Italians were killed in a suicide bombing appeared aimed at undercutting the cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition, which includes more than 30 countries. The insurgents are also focusing on separating U.S. forces from Iraqi allies by attacking police and local officials.

Television footage of the aftermath of the ambush showed several bodies along a highway as cars, their headlights on, drove by at dusk. People milled around, and a youth — apparently aware he was being filmed — kicked his foot in the air over a body. An older youth with his arm raised in triumph rested his foot on a corpse.

“We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, oh, Saddam,” some in the group chanted in Arabic, witnesses said. The praise for Iraq’s ousted leader, Saddam Hussein, was not recorded on camera.

Spokesmen for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said the attack wouldn’t cause Spain to end its presence in Iraq. The killings of the Spanish agents came more than two weeks after assailants targeted another staunch U.S. ally, Italy, with a devastating car bomb outside the Italian barracks in Nasiriyah that killed 19 Italians and wounded 14 others.

Meanwhile, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was investigating unconfirmed reports that two Japanese men believed to be diplomats were shot and killed yesterday and their driver seriously injured in an ambush near the Iraqi city of Tikrit.

The deaths would be the first of Japanese in Iraq since the U.S. occupation, and comes as Japan is debating whether to send noncombat troops to Iraq to help with the country’s reconstruction.

In Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said some U.S.-trained Iraqi police and civilian informants appear to have conducted attacks on coalition targets.

“We try to do the vetting [of Iraqi employees] as close as we can,” Gen. Sanchez said at a news conference in Baghdad. But he added: “There have been instances when police were conducting attacks against the coalition and against the people.”

U.S.-led efforts to establish a reliable Iraqi security network are vital to Washington’s plans to transfer political power to a new Iraqi leadership, opening the way for the eventual withdrawal of American troops who come under daily attack.

American officials say the arrest of three North Africans in Europe this week on suspicion of recruiting militants to attack the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq points to an organized international campaign.

Gen. Sanchez said the United States suspects operatives of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network have taken part in many of the attacks on coalition and civilian targets in Iraq, but still has no conclusive evidence of its involvement.

Attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq have dropped about 30 percent in the past two weeks, Gen. Sanchez said, from a daily average of 35 to 22. On the worst days earlier this month, there were as many as 50 attacks a day, he said. At least 75 U.S. soldiers have been killed in November.

The two civilian four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying the Spanish officers were traveling south from Baghdad to the city of Hillah, said Capt. Ivan Morgan, a spokesman for a multinational division in southern Iraq.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos professed his profound sorrow over yesterday’s attack.

“We are grateful to all the people who serve Spain and Spain’s democracy beyond our borders fighting terrorism and guaranteeing freedom and democracy,” Justice Minister Jose Maria Michavila said.

Spain was one of the firmest supporters of the U.S.-led move to oust Saddam Hussein and sent 1,300 soldiers to help maintain order. In previous attacks, a Spanish diplomat attached to Spain’s intelligence agency was assassinated near his residence in Baghdad on Oct. 9, and a Spanish navy captain was killed in the truck bombing of the United Nations’ headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19.

To respond to assaults more quickly, the United States plans to change its force in Iraq from tanks and heavy armored vehicles to one specializing in urban raids, Gen. Sanchez said.

U.S. officials say civilians have been particularly hard hit by the violence, with insurgents launching more than 150 attacks against police and other civilians during the muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week.

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