An alarm in Spain

March 16, 2004

SPAIN PRESENTS an extraordinarily delicate dilemma to the rest of Europe and to the United States. Spaniards overwhelmingly opposed their nation's participation in the war in Iraq - and, we believe, with good reason - yet their repudiation of the government that allied itself with Washington poses a very real danger, coming as it does on the heels of the Madrid train bombings.

Simply put, it is this: that Sunday's election will teach al-Qaida, or whoever set off the bombs, that terror is effective and can influence politics in the Western nations. Some extremists might be led to believe that the people of Europe lack the fortitude to oppose them - if pressed. The temptation to press further may loom large.

The immediate challenge is for all the developed nations - notwithstanding their deep divisions over Iraq - to find ways to highlight their joint commitment to the struggle against al-Qaida and allied terrorist organizations.

Iraq, however, stands as a huge obstacle.

The American invasion of Iraq was portrayed as a blow against terrorism. Yet it has succeeded in enlisting al-Qaida to the cause of Iraqi resistance; where, earlier, the regime of Saddam Hussein and the organization of Osama bin Laden were culturally, ideologically and theologically polar opposites, today al-Qaida is setting off bombs on behalf of the Baathist remnants. The question of Iraq is, now, at least in part a question of terrorism, yet the European public was so bitterly alienated by President Bush's determination to go to war there that it will be very difficult for the old Atlantic allies to find common ground.

Yet it can and must be done. The incoming Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, said yesterday that the war had been built on "lies" and that the occupation of Iraq was a "disaster." But it's beyond doubt that Spain, even under a new government, will want to pursue those who brought such devastation to Madrid. This must be the starting point. It will not be enough for Spain simply to withdraw its 1,300 soldiers from Iraq and then hope to be exempted from further attack. Thoughtful Spaniards will understand that their country must redouble its efforts against al-Qaida.

And thoughtful Americans will make it possible for the world's most powerful country to be at their side. The United States faces an urgent diplomatic challenge - to mend the rift among allies before terrorists can make it worse, and before hundreds or thousands more die.

That means, above all, reaching an accommodation on Iraq. The situation in Iraq today muddies and complicates the West's pursuit of Islamist extremists - a pursuit that demands clarity and unity. Much of the blame for that lies with Washington, which is why Washington should take the lead in putting hard feelings aside and finding the means through which the developed world can act in concert for a better, more stable Iraq - and against those fanatics who plot murder and destruction.

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