BAGHDAD — Echoing a holiday gesture made by President Bush last month, the Spanish prime minister paid a surprise Christmas season visit to his country's troops Saturday.
Spain, a coalition ally of the United States in Iraq, was badly shaken by the ambush deaths in November of seven Spanish intelligence agents.
In the wake of those killings, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar came under heavy domestic criticism over military deployments here, but vowed that Spanish troops would continue to serve.
Like Bush's Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops, Aznar's trip was shrouded in secrecy, involving less than four hours on the ground. And like Bush, he turned up unexpectedly in a military mess hall, surprising the Spanish soldiers whose 1,300-member contingent is based in the southern Iraqi town of Diwaniyah.
Aznar said his country's soldiers were working to preserve "freedom, democracy and respect for international law," adding: "The safety of Spain is also defended in Iraq."
Also Saturday, Iraqi police in the northern city of Kirkuk said U.S. troops had mistakenly fired on Iraqi policemen at a checkpoint about 50 miles south of the city, killing three and wounding two. The U.S. military did not issue a statement on the incident, or immediately respond to queries regarding it.
The Iraqi officers were working a checkpoint about midnight Friday when the U.S. troops opened fire on them, apparently mistaking them for bandits, according to accounts by Iraqi police officials.
On Saturday, in what appeared to be the latest instance of vigilante violence against members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, a female former provincial official was shot and critically wounded in the southern city of Najaf, according to eyewitnesses and Iraqi media accounts. The woman's 5-year-old son reportedly was killed in the attack in front of their home.
It was the third such apparent revenge attack in Najaf in four days. A former district mayor was gunned down Friday while shopping, and Wednesday another regime-linked figure was dragged from his car and beaten to death by a mob.
All of the former Baathists attacked were thought to have played important roles in the harsh repression of a 1991 uprising by Shiite Muslims against Hussein's rule.