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U.S. shifting to more mobile force in Iraq; 7 Spanish officers killed in ambush

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In an effort to take the fight to the guerrillas who are attacking the United States and its allies, U.S. commanders in Iraq are shifting to a new, more mobile rapid reaction force that will be tailored for small-scale urban warfare.

Underscoring the need for more aggressive tactics, gunmen Saturday ambushed a team of Spanish military intelligence officers 18 miles south of Baghdad. Seven officers were killed and one was wounded, said Spain's Defense Minister, Federico Trillo.

In another sign that the guerrillas are trying to demoralize America's allies in Iraq, Japanese officials on Sunday morning in Tokyo said they were checking unconfirmed reports that two men believed to be Japanese diplomats were killed in an ambush Saturday afternoon near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown 110 miles north of the Iraqi capital.

The attacks on the Spaniards and the Japanese, both among America's staunchest allies in Iraq, were the latest blows to the U.S.-led coalition, which has seen 77 American soldiers die in November, more than in any other month since the U.S.-led invasion began on March 20. A total of 73 U.S. soldiers died in September and October combined.

A new, lighter U.S. force will spearhead a new phase in the war, called Iraqi Freedom II, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, said on Saturday. The new phase will begin early next year, when existing troops are relieved by the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood, Tex. and the 1st Infantry Division from Germany, along with about 3,000 Marines.

"What we're in search of is a very mobile, very flexible, yet lethal force that can accomplish its mission," Sanchez said. "Those capabilities are defined by the enemy."

The new strategy, said Sanchez, will involve deploying more infantry troops and reducing the military's dependence on tanks and armored personnel carriers, which have been targets of insurgents who set off roadside bombs and fire rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.

Stealth, precision and speed are needed to combat the small, hit-and-run groups of former Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic militants that U.S. officials say are largely behind the attacks.

The new force will be equipped with better intelligence gathering tools and the skills and hardware needed to conduct lightning strikes and raids into urban areas to flush out insurgents, said Sanchez.

Intelligence officials in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said that while the change in tactics makes sense, it can't be effective unless the coalition has better intelligence than the guerrillas do.

Confirming a Nov. 1 Knight Ridder report, Sanchez said some Iraqi civilians working for the coalition may also be spying for the guerrillas. He also said some U.S.-trained Iraqi policemen have "turned up in attacks against the coalition."

According to an August 18 U.S. Army War College study, Iraqis in civilian clothes provided Saddam Hussein's forces with real-time intelligence in March and April by watching U.S. troop movements and reporting them via satellite or cell phones and couriers.

Sanchez said the new tactics wouldn't require more U.S. forces. The number of troops, he added, would be reduced as logistics, communications and transportation troops are replaced by civilian contractors.

The intelligence officials, however, questioned whether U.S. forces can prevail without bringing in additional troops to police Iraq's borders and to clean up some 131 Iraqi ammunition dumps that cover 50 square miles and have served, one official said, "as a shopping mall for guerrillas."

Sanchez said he didn't have orders from Washington to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq before next year's presidential elections. With the U.S. economy improving, the Iraq war is emerging as the biggest threat to President Bush's reelection.

"There is no pressure on me from the political leadership to decrease the number of forces that are in this country," said Sanchez. "There is no tension."

The plans to reconfigure the force came as the number of attacks on U.S. troops has decreased by more than 30 percent in the past weeks, from an average of 35 a day to 22 now, said Sanchez.

"This decline has been most significant where we have taken the fight to the enemy," said Sanchez.

But the assaults have shifted toward ordinary Iraqis. The insurgents have launched more than 115 attacks against Iraqi officials, police and civilians during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week, said Sanchez.

"This is clearly an attempt to drive a wedge between the Iraqi people and the coalition," said Sanchez. "They are using innovative methods to get under security measures."

Although some Bush administration officials claim that there are longstanding ties between Saddam's regime and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization, Sanchez said the coalition has found no strong evidence that al-Qaida is aiding the guerrillas.

"We still have not conclusively established an al-Qaida operative here in country," said Sanchez, who said some terrorists could have died in suicide missions.

Saddam loyalists, he added, continue to be the chief threat.

The Spanish intelligence officers were attacked in their four-wheel-drive vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles in the town of Mahmudiyah, said Trillo, Spain's Defense Minister.

According to footage shot by Britain's Sky News, a group of young men kicked the Spaniards' bodies and chanted:

"We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, oh Saddam."

Spain is a strong supporter of the U.S.-led coalition, and has sent 1,300 troops to Iraq. A Spanish diplomat was assassinated near his home in Baghdad last month, and 10 Spanish soldiers have been killed since the March invasion.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, through a spokesman, said Spain would keep its troops in Iraq.

Italy, another staunch ally of the United States, was targeted earlier this month when a truck bomb outside the Italian base in Nasiriyah killed 19 Italian soldiers and wounded 14.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ