LATIFIYAH, Iraq—When Iraqi police Lt. Khasem Razak Aziz drove up to the crime scene, he saw the bodies of seven Spanish military intelligence officers lying on the dark highway. Cheering Iraqis danced around them. Nearby, a pair of bullet-ridden, four-wheel-drive vehicles had swerved to a halt.
Aziz saw the unruly crowd wagging Kalashnikov rifles and chanting pro-Saddam Hussein slogans. He saw they were preparing to burn alive an eighth Spaniard who'd tumbled from his car, wounded.
Aziz was an Iraqi policeman trained by the U.S. military, a group that guerrillas have targeted for collaborating with the U.S.-led coalition. He had only five, lightly armed men with him.
But he raised his gun and his courage. He fired into the air. The crowd turned angry.
"They told me not to interfere. They called me a traitor," recalled Aziz, who was burly and mustachioed. "They thought the officers were American."
As the bodies of the seven Spanish officers were flown back to Spain on Sunday, a U.S. military commander said the gunmen who ambushed the team on Saturday in this dusty town 20 miles south of Baghdad might have thought they were American civilian contractors.
The Spanish officers were wearing civilian clothes and driving unmarked, non-military cars, said Lt. Col Pete Johnson, the commander of 3-505 Parachute Infantry Regiment that patrols Latifiyah and other surrounding towns.
"They were looking for soft, easy targets," said Johnson. "I am convinced they were trying to target civilian vehicles and not the military."
As the hostile crowd closed in on him, Aziz clutched his gun and gave a warning.
"They were threatening me with rifles," said Aziz. "I tried to explain to them that this is my job and anyone who interferes, I'll shoot him."
Then he pushed his way through the crowd, picked up the injured Spanish officer and placed him inside the police vehicle. What helped him, Aziz recalled, is that many in the crowd didn't know his salary was paid by the coalition. It's a fact he doesn't advertise.
"All the people know I don't work with the Americans," said Aziz. "I work with the Iraqis."
Aziz and his men took the Spanish officer, whose shirt was drenched with blood, to the police station, where he was fed. He was later taken to a U.S. military hospital and treated for minor injuries. Aziz then went to the U.S. military base less than 2 miles away to alert Lt. Col Johnson and his men.
For Johnson, the rescue mission was a small yet hopeful sign that Iraqi police can keep the peace after U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"Thoroughly outnumbered, they still had the intestinal fortitude to get that individual and move him to safety," said Lt. Col Johnson.
"It was my duty to save the Spaniard's life," said Aziz. If I left him there, they would have killed him."
The Spanish officer, he said, kept thanking him profusely.
The ambush occurred at around 5 p.m. According to witnesses, U.S. military officials and Iraqi police, the Spanish team was driving south from Baghdad when their attackers in a small dark car picked up their trail.
While the area is a secular mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the strip where the attacks took place is home to a number of Wahabis, fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who are opposed to the coalition, Aziz and residents said.
Johnson said the Wahabis are a small minority and pose no threat to coalition forces.
As they passed through Latifiyah, their attackers pulled up behind the Spaniards and opened fire. One of the cars swerved off the road and the second one screeched to a halt. Then gunmen, hidden behind walls, opened fire.
"It was a coordinated ambush," said Johnson. "They knew where they wanted to do it and when."
A firefight raged for a half-hour, said witnesses. The attackers had Kalashnikov rifles and grenades. When the Spanish officers tried to flee their car, they were gunned down or killed by a grenade.
"People were kicking the dead bodies and dragging them in the street," said Abu Salman, 45, who refused to give his full name.
By the time Aziz returned with Johnson and his men, the cars were smoldering. Some of the Spaniards' bodies were charred beyond recognition, and the corpses had been robbed.
The more than 700 troops at the nearby U.S. military base patrol this area heavily. Yet two weeks ago, four British contractors were killed in a similar ambush in the same strip of Latifiyah, said Johnson. Their burned-out car is still parked in a muddy field a few yards from one of the Spanish team's charred vehicles, parked in a brown pool of water.
On Sunday, large blood stains still scarred the asphalt. One of the Spanish officers' cars was taken away. The other was scavenged for its parts.
A man with a dark beard came by and offered to sell a bright-orange packet. It contained a Spanish passport, photos of two little boys and their mother, a Spanish credit card and an organizer filled with business cards and notes in Spanish.
"This attack is a lesson for the other countries not to send their forces to Iraq," said the man, who described himself as a Wahabi.
He said he'd sold one Spanish passport for $500.
"I'll give the money to the resistance," he said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq