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Spanish Agents, Japanese Diplomats Killed in Separate Ambushes

Spanish Agents, Japanese Diplomats Killed in Separate Ambushes

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Assailants ambushed a team of Spanish intelligence officers Saturday, killing seven agents in a bloody new attack on U.S. allies in Iraq. Two Japanese diplomats were shot to death in a separate attack.

One Spanish agent escaped the assault in Mahmudiyah, 18 miles south of Baghdad. Journalists arrived on the scene and said a small crowd chanted praise for ousted president Saddam Hussein and some even kicked at the bodies.

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 rested his foot on a corpse, an arm raised in triumph.

"We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, oh Saddam," some in the group chanted in Arabic, witnesses said.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a reporter for The Washington Post, spoke with several witnesses in the crowd. Based on what they said, he described it as a "sophisticated, coordinated attack."

One or two cars with Saddam loyalists were following the Spanish team, the witnesses told him. Near the site, they opened fire on the SUVs, forcing the lead vehicle off the road. "A second band of attackers laying in wait opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs," he said.

The first car caught on fire, and a 20-minute gun battle ensued, he said, based on the witness accounts.

Chandrasekaran said a crowd of about 100 people gathered, and added he saw people kicking the bodies. "It was hostility mixed with jubilation."

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 14 others.

He said he would fly to Iraq to repatriate the bodies, which were evacuated from the scene by helicopters of Spain's Plus Ultra Brigade.

President Bush called Aznar "to express his sympathies on behalf of the American people," said White House spokesman Allen Abney. He said Aznar "reaffirmed his support for our joint effort in Iraq."

Meanwhile, Japan's Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said two Japanese diplomats were killed Saturday after their car was ambushed near the Iraqi city of Tikrit. The two were traveling to Tikrit to attend a reconstruction aid conference. Officials said that they didn't have any other details of the attack.

The deaths were the first of Japanese in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. Kawaguchi said there would be no change to Japan's plans to dispatch troops to support the U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq.

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," 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.

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

Sanchez said the United States suspects operatives of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida 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.

He acknowledged the difficulty of establishing a firm connection with al-Qaida amid the chaos of what has been the deadliest month for American soldiers since the U.S.-led invasion on March 20 -- though the number of assaults has declined in recent days.

"We still haven't conclusively established an al-Qaida operative in this country," the general said.

Guerrilla attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq have dropped some 30 percent in the past two weeks, 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, Sanchez said. At least 75 U.S. soldiers have been killed in November.

Spain's King Juan Carlos professed his profound sorrow over Saturday'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 invasion 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, Sanchez said.

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

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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