Spanish troops will remain in Iraq, Aznar says

Prime minister calls withdrawal `worst course'

December 01, 2003|By Cristina Mateo-Yanguas and Tracy Wilkinson | Cristina Mateo-Yanguas and Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MADRID, Spain -- Like other key U.S. allies, Spain was forced into national mourning yesterday, grieving for losses in Iraq and questioning whether the country is paying too high a price for participation in rebuilding the country.

The government quickly said the killing Saturday of seven Spanish intelligence agents by Iraqi insurgents would not discourage Spain from fulfilling its role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

But, while most politicians said sorrow and solidarity must rule the day for now, there were signs as coffins bearing the seven bodies arrived here yesterday that the political fallout would be severe. Several opposition leaders called for the defense minister to be fired and all Spanish personnel to be removed from Iraq.

"Withdrawal is the worst possible course of action," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said yesterday in a televised speech, as Defense Minister Federico Trillo journeyed to Kuwait and was accompanying the bodies home.

Aznar wore a black tie as a sign of mourning, and he read the names of each fallen agent.

"The fanatic hatred that accompanied this new atrocity has given us inconceivable images that we will never forget," he said somberly. "It is against this fanaticism that we have no choice but to show our face."

A number of Iraqis were seen celebrating over the bodies of the men, who were killed in an ambush on a busy highway south of Baghdad. Photographs of the macabre scene were displayed across the front pages of most Spanish newspapers yesterday.

The ABC newspaper reported that the dead included the head of Spain's intelligence operations in Iraq.

Like his British counterpart, Tony Blair, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Aznar has enthusiastically supported President Bush and Washington's war in Iraq despite enormous domestic opposition. The slaughter of 19 Italians by a suicide bomber in southern Iraq last month revived debate in Italy over whether troops should retreat.

Spain heads into national elections early next year. Aznar's Popular Party has led all polls, but analysts said a mounting death toll in Iraq could erode the ruling party's support. Aznar is not standing for re-election but has chosen a successor.

Madrid had pulled much of its diplomatic staff after the execution in October of a military attache in Baghdad. About 1,300 Spanish troops are stationed in central Iraq.

Aznar, like Bush, has sought to cast Spain's efforts in Iraq as part of a global war on terrorism.

"We have experience in terrorism," he said in yesterday's speech. "There are no borders in the fight against terrorism, because the fanatics do not want there to be."

Political opposition was generally muted, but several leaders called for Trillo's resignation.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, secretary-general of the Socialist Workers Party, the largest in the opposition, said that despite his well-known opposition to the war, now was the time to show solidarity with the families of the dead and the armed forces.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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