| Jose Antonio Bernal A boy holds a rifle during a march by Shia militias in Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, Oct. 9 (Reuters): Gunmen killed a Spanish diplomat in Baghdad today, shooting him down in the street as he fled his home in just bare feet and undershorts.
The Spanish foreign ministry said Jose Antonio Bernal was killed near his home in the upmarket Mansur neighbourhood, location of many embassies and homes of diplomats.
The gunmen had chased him for 50 metres firing their pistols. One of them appeared to be a cleric. The chilling assassination raised new questions over security in Baghdad as the suburb is one of the most heavily patrolled and protected in the city.
Bernal, 34, was an air force sergeant working for intelligence services at the Spanish embassy. He was married with a daughter. The motive for the shooting was unclear. But Spain backed the US-led war on Iraq and has since sent troops to the country to help restore order.
Witnesses said three men pulled up in a brown car outside the diplomat’s two-storey house, surrounded by a two metre high white wall, at about 7.30 am, about 30 minutes before Bernal would normally leave to walk to the nearby embassy.
They said one was wearing a black turban and appeared to be a Shia cleric. The other two pointed pistols at several unarmed security guards and threatened to kill them if they interfered.
“The cleric knocked on the gate and the diplomat opened it,” said Adeeb Mustafa, a mechanic who saw the incident. The men with pistols positioned themselves on either side of the gate.
“(The Spaniard) was barefoot, wearing only his undershorts. As soon as he saw the cleric, he pushed him and ran to his left down the street.” A security guard at a school on the same secluded street said the men pursued Bernal for nearly 50 yards. “They chased him down the road firing their pistols at him all the time,” Ahmed Ismael said. Bernal was just 10 yards from reaching a busy highway where he might have found safety when he was shot. “One bullet struck him in the head and he collapsed on the street. The three men jumped back into the car and sped away.”
Spain has about 1,300 troops in Iraq, mostly concentrated in Shia areas south of Baghdad.
The Spanish government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been an unflagging supporter of US President George W. Bush on Iraq and is scheduled to host a donors conference on Iraq in Madrid in two weeks.
Madrid’s foreign ministry described Bernal as an information attache working for Spain’s National Intelligence Centre. The defence ministry said he was a first sergeant of the air force attached to the embassy.
Spain’s secretary of state for foreign affairs told Spanish state radio the motive for the attack was unclear. “We don’t know right now... if they targeted him because they knew him personally or if it was because he was member of the Spanish embassy or simply because he was a Westerner and they knew where he lived,” Ramon Gil-Casares said.
“This was a terrorist act. He was a professional in security matters and we don’t know why he opened the door with that kind of training.”
Bush defends war
US President George W. Bush, in a new push to defend the war on Iraq in face of mounting doubts, said today he acted to protect Americans from “madman” Saddam Hussein.
“I acted because I was not about to leave the security of the American people in the hands of a madman. I was not about to stand by and wait and trust in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein,” Bush said in speech in New Hampshire.