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US Troops Mistakenly Kill 3 Iraqi Policemen; Aznar Visits Spanish Troops - 2003-12-20

U.S. troops have mistakenly killed three Iraqi police officers in northern Iraq, and the Spanish prime minister has staged a top-secret, lightning visit to Spanish troops in the south.

Iraqi police say U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq mistakenly opened fire on patrolling policemen, apparently believing they were bandits. Three police officers were killed and two others were wounded.

The incident happened late Friday at a checkpoint on a road leading south from the city of Kirkuk.

Police officers and other domestic security forces work at probably the riskiest jobs in Iraq. Anti-coalition insurgents routinely attack police stations with car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

Coalition officials say at least 116 members of the various Iraqi security services have been killed in action since the beginning of May. One news report puts the figure closer to 250.

A spokesman says the coalition is about to announce a pay hike for certain members of the Iraqi security services, after nearly half of the first batch of recruits in the new Iraqi army quit, complaining about their salaries. No details of the new pay scale have been released yet, but the coalition is calling it "hazard pay" related to the dangers in carrying out their duties.

Meanwhile in southern Iraq, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar paid a surprise visit to Spanish troops deployed in the city of Diwaniyah, about 150 kilometers south of Baghdad. He stayed in the country for a few hours and had lunch with Spanish soldiers before returning to Madrid. Tight security surrounded the top-secret trip.

Despite widespread public opposition to the Iraq war, Spain has actively supported the U.S. led intervention and has sent about 1,300 troops to Iraq. Last month, insurgents ambushed and killed seven Spanish intelligence agents, but Spanish leaders say the attack has not shaken their commitment to keeping troops in Iraq.

Mr. Aznar told Spanish soldiers they are working for the cause of freedom, democracy and the respect for international law.

Meanwhile, news agencies are reporting that separate attacks have been made in the city of Najaf against several former officials from Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.

Iraqi police say at least one man died in a hail of bullets as he was shopping in downtown Najaf late Friday.

In the other attack, police say gunmen on motorcycles opened fire Saturday and wounded a former Ba'ath party official who was believed to be involved in crushing the Shi'ite uprising of 1991, after the first Gulf war. Police say the assailants killed her five-year-old son.

Najaf is one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest cities, and a number of former Ba'ath party members have been assassinated there in recent weeks. Another Ba'ath party official accused of putting down the 1991 rebellion was killed by an angry mob on Wednesday.