Ambush at Latifiya

A decade on from the killing of seven CNI agents in Iraq, the only suspect is a translator who was questioned at the time and sent to Abu Ghraib jail

A memorial to the seven CNI operatives killed in an ambush south of Baghdad in November 2003.
A memorial to the seven CNI operatives killed in an ambush south of Baghdad in November 2003. ULY MARTÍN

At 2.30pm on November 29, 2003, two off-road vehicles began their return journey from Baghdad to Diwaniya, the headquarters of Spain's Brigada Plus Ultra, 180 kilometers to the south of the Iraqi capital. Driving a white Nissan Patrol was Alberto Martínez, the head of an eight-man team belonging to the National Intelligence Center (CNI), Spain's secret service. Next to him was sitting José Merino, and in the back seat, José Lucas and Ignacio Zanón. In the second vehicle, a blue Chevrolet Tahoe, were Alfonso Vega, Carlos Baró, José Carlos Rodríguez and José Manuel Sánchez. Four of the team were on a visit acclimatizing themselves and carrying out reconnaissance work ahead of their proper posting to Iraq to substitute the other four in January. Normally, such a large group of secret service agents would not travel together, but the itinerary had been approved by the CNI in Madrid, which believed that in this way it would be easier to deal with anything unexpected. As a precautionary measure, the date of the trip had been changed, and the return time brought forward.

During their time in Baghdad, the team visited the Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupation government installed after the March 2003 invasion, of which Spanish General Luis Feliú was part, as well as Camp Victory, the principal base of the US-led coalition forces. They also had lunch at Martínez's former home in Baghdad.

The trip began without incident. The convoy avoided the main road, the scene of frequent attacks, and instead took the old route, which goes through one village after another. It took a particularly long time to make it through Mahmudiya, which was filled with people attending the Saturday market. On the outskirts of the town is the base of the US Army's 505 Regiment, which belongs to the 82nd Air Transport Division. Using a satellite telephone, the two vehicles were in constant touch. All quiet.

Just before 3.30pm, around 30 kilometers south of Baghdad, a white sedan (believed to be a Cadillac), sped up suddenly from behind and opened fire on the convoy. The Chevrolet accelerated and overtook the Nissan to warn them of the attack. The sedan followed, and coming up alongside the Nissan, two men leaned out of the window and opened fire with Kalashnikovs, killing Martínez instantly and wounding Lucas.

The sedan now chased after the Chevrolet. A hail of bullets hit Rodríguez, and Vega, the driver, who lost control of the vehicle, which span off the road.

In the Nissan, Merino managed to steer the vehicle, and made his way slowly, with all his tires shot out, to the side of the road where the Chevrolet had come to a halt. Seeing the Nissan approach, the sedan sped off.

The last photograph

  • The last photograph (courtesy of Tiempo magazine) of the eight agents attacked in Iraq, seven of whom were killed, shows the team in November 2003 standing in front of their Chevrolet Tahoe (which can also be seen after the attack in the photograph on the opposite page, by which time it had been set ablaze).
  • Alberto Martínez González, a cavalry major (left) was born in 1958, and joined the Spanish secret service in 1992. He was head of the CNI's operations in Iraq between 2000 and 2003 and, along with other Spanish Embassy personnel, left the country between February and May of 2003, during the US-led invasion. He was due to take up a new position later that year, but was asked by his superiors to return to Iraq a few days after returning to Spain that summer to head the CNI team at Nayaf base.
  • Alfonso Vega Calvo (third from left), an infantry brigadier, was born in Stuttgart in 1962, and joined the CNI in 1990. Along with Zanón, he was part of the teams deployed by the Spanish in Iraq since August, and was due to be relieved in January.
  • Infantry Major Carlos Baró Ollero (fourth from left) was born in 1967 and joined the CNI in 1998. He led the counter-intelligence team from the base at Diwaniya, and took command of the team after Martínez was killed during the attack on the Latifiya road. He died fighting off better-armed and more numerous forces.
  • First Sergeant Luis Ignacio Zanón (right) of the Air Force Telegraph Corps was born in 1967 and joined the CNI in 1994.
  • The remaining four agents belonged to the two new teams due to take over in January. They were in Iraq on an acclimatization and reconnaissance mission and were due to return to Spain on December 1: José Ramón Merino Olivera (fourth from right), an infantry major born in Madrid in 1954, and a member of the CNI since 1990; José Carlos Rodríguez Pérez (second from left), an infantry major born in Zamora in 1962 and a member of the CNI since 1997; José Lucas Egea (second from right), a cavalry brigadier born in Madrid in 1959 who joined the CNI in 1990; and José Manuel Sánchez Riera (third from right), a non-commissioned officer and the only survivor.
  • The seven dead were promoted posthumously and awarded the military merit cross.

Barely a few minutes had passed, and it seemed that the worst was over. Two of the team were dead, and two seriously injured. Baró, who took over command, called the base in Diwaniya to ask for rescue helicopters, but was unable to get through. Eventually, he made contact with the CNI in Madrid, but before he could give his coordinates, the line was cut. He called again, but was immediately interrupted by shots coming from some nearby houses.

Baró, Merino and Zanón threw themselves to the ground and returned fire using their pistols and Steyr machine pistols, but were hopelessly outgunned by the Kalashnikovs and RPGs being employed against them. Baró ordered Sánchez to make a break for it, to try to find help. As he moved away, he heard Merino cry out as he was hit in the arm.

By now a crowd had already gathered on the road, cheering on the attackers. The incident took place in Latifiya, part of the so-called triangle of death, the heart of the insurgency. Sánchez tried to flag down a car, but his pistol jammed and suddenly he was surrounded by the mob. He was pushed forward as somebody tried to get him into the trunk of a car. Amid the chaos a man who appeared to be a cleric stepped forward to kiss Sánchez on the cheek, and suddenly the crowd calmed down. Sánchez climbed into a taxi and headed for the nearest police station. When he returned with the officers, the two vehicles were in flames and all his companions dead.

A Sky News team passing through stopped to film local people desecrating the bodies of the Spanish agents. The shootout lasted less than 30 minutes, during which time the Spanish team died one by one, as their magazines ran out.

The massacre in Latifiya remains the deadliest incident involving Spain's secret service, and was due to a chain of mistakes and poor planning. If the eight agents had been traveling in armored vehicles, with bullet-proof glass, the first shots would not have hit four of the team. The CNI did not believe it necessary to provide its teams with armored vehicles (although the army had armored Nissan Patrols for its three generals), and by the time it did, at the beginning of October, it was too late: the two vehicles arrived in Iraq weeks after the attack. The four-wheel-drive vehicles had not been equipped with inhibitors to neutralize explosive devices, nor any kind of beacon to identify their position. The agents had no bodyguards (as CNI teams in Afghanistan have subsequently had), their communications systems were defective, and they were not even sufficiently well armed to deal with fighters using Kalashnikovs.

The cars were not armored and had not been equipped with inhibitors

The team had not even been properly trained for their mission: when, in June 2003, the Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister José María Aznar decided to send 1,300 soldiers as part of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the CNI had to very quickly put together two teams to support the Spanish troops stationed in Diwaniya and Nayaf. The need to respond rapidly to the Defense Ministry's demands meant the usual selection and training procedures were not carried out.

But the truly fatal error, as the CNI itself would admit to later, was using Alberto Martínez, the head of the CNI's operations in Baghdad before the invasion, based on his supposed on-the-ground knowledge. During the Saddam Hussein era, the Spanish intelligence service had a cordial relationship with its Iraqi counterpart. Even as late as the autumn of 2002, when Aznar had already publicly supported the Bush regime's aggressive rhetoric on Iraq, a high-level Iraqi intelligence delegation visited Madrid. After the US-led invasion, the entire Iraqi secret services, the Mukhabarat, went over to the insurgents.

The Mukhabarat knew that Martínez and Bernal belonged to the CNI. They also knew where they lived, and who their sources were.

The CNI failed to grasp how quickly things had changed in Iraq, despite the warning signs.

On August 19, the UN headquarters in Baghdad were destroyed by a car bomb. Among the victims was Spanish Navy Captain Manuel Martín Oar. Worse still, on October 9, the CNI's number two in Iraq, José Antonio Bernal, was murdered at his home by three men. The Iraqi police said the killing had been carried out on the orders of a cleric based in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, but no link was ever firmly established.

The CNI's investigation ruled out any personal motive for Bernal's killing, deciding that it was most likely a revenge attack carried out by Iraqi former secret service agents. The CNI's report, released at the beginning of November 2003, concluded that there was a specific and direct threat to the Spanish spies operating in Iraq. It was decided that Martínez should be replaced as soon as possible, in December. That date proved to be too late.

Lieutenant Colonel Pete Johnson, the officer in command of the US base at Mahmudiya, says the CNI agents were a "target opportunity." He believes that their killers did not know that they were spies, or even that they were Spanish, but had simply identified them as Westerners because of their vehicles. The many indiscriminate attacks that had taken place on the same road suggest that Johnson is probably right.

Sánchez was pushed forward as someone tried to get him into the trunk of a car

But the CNI insists that the killers knew their targets, knew where they were going, and had acted on information provided by an informer. They now set about trying to find the informer. This quest would lead to controversial consequences.

On March 22, 2004, Flayeh al Mayali, a 58-year-old teacher of Spanish at the University of Baghdad, who had been Martínez's translator, arrived at the Diwaniya base. He had continued working for the Spanish team after Martínez's death. A member of an influential Shiite family, he was a middleman for local companies who supplied the base, an activity that by his own admission earned him commissions of around 70,000 dollars a year. But that day would end unexpectedly for him. Al Mayali was accused of providing the killers of the seven Spaniards with vital information.

The Spanish authorities said that Al Mayali had known Bernal and Martínez when they were previously posted to Baghdad, and that he was the only person who knew the movements of the team in the run-up to their murder. He denied any involvement in the killings, saying that on the morning of the murders he was supposed to have met with Martínez at the Nayaf base, and that when he failed to show up, he rang the Spaniard, but was unable to locate him. He insisted that he did not learn about what had happened until the next day.

Several local informers said Flayeh was the man who had tipped off the insurgents, and had been paid 50,000 US dollars for the information on the Spanish team's movements. But nobody was prepared to testify in court for fear of reprisals. The translator said he was being falsely accused.

Al Mayali says that the CNI kept him in a tiny cell, stripped naked, hooded, with his hands bound, and that he was repeatedly beaten and threatened with being sent to Guantanamo Bay. The CNI says he was not mistreated, but was interrogated for three days by four agents, and that he was only hooded and bound when his food was brought to his cell.

Al Mayali agreed to take a lie detector test, the results of which convinced his captors that he was not telling the truth when he denied their accusations. "I don't know what the machine said, but I know that I was very nervous," the translator remembers.

Despite their pressure, the CNI agents failed to produce a confession. The translator denied that he had been involved in the killings again and again. All that he would admit to was having collaborated with the Iraqi secret police before the invasion, which the CNI interpreted as supporting their accusation. Al Mayali says that at the end of 2002 he was interrogated by Saddam's agents, who asked him about his relationship with Martínez. "I told them that I did no more than simply translate articles from the Arab press for him," he insists. Little wonder that the Iraqi secret services wanted to interrogate him about his relationship with a Spanish secret service agent operating out of Baghdad.

On March 25, Al Mayali was handed over to US military police. Judge Fernando Andreu of Spain's High Court was investigating the murder of the seven secret service agents. A month before, on February 13, he had closed the investigation, unable to identify the killers, but saying he would reopen it "if new evidence came to light."

The Defense Ministry did not bother to inform the judge that Al Mayali had been arrested or handed over to the US authorities. On March 27, he was transferred to Baghdad and then held in the now-notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Almost a year later, on February 17, 2005, he was released without charges. But the CNI says he remains the main suspect in the killings. So far, the only action it has taken against Al Mayali is to prevent him from being able to enter Spain or any of the Schengen-area countries for 10 years.

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