A new Madrid seeks change in Iraq policy

Prime minister-elect calls occupation `disaster,' threatens troop pullout

Shared commitment, U.S. says

In first news conference, Socialist Zapatero vows a `pro-Europe' Spain

March 16, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House tried yesterday to put the best possible face on what was widely seen as Spain's repudiation of President Bush's policies in Iraq.

President Bush placed a congratulatory telephone call to Spain's prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had campaigned in opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and has vowed to withdraw the 1,300 troops dispatched under the outgoing prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Yesterday, in his first remarks to reporters since his victory, Zapatero criticized the American occupation as "a great disaster," and said the Spanish troops would be withdrawn unless they were put under United Nations control by the end of June.

Zapatero's upset victory came four days after a series of train bombings in Madrid that killed at least 200 people - attacks that apparently reawakened Spaniards' overwhelming opposition to the war in Iraq and turned them against the ruling party.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to be drawn into commenting on whether the Spanish election results amounted to a blow to Bush's foreign policy.

"The two leaders both said they look forward to working together, particularly on our shared commitment to combating terrorism," he said.

"I think there's going to, obviously, be a lot of political analysis done on the election," the spokesman told reporters, and then abruptly changed the subject to terrorism.

"Let me tell you what I know, and that is that terrorists are indiscriminate," he said. "They're indiscriminate in who they attack and when they attack. Terrorists have attacked civilians in Indonesia, they've attacked civilians in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and a number of other places."

Zapatero, leader of the Socialist Party, was unreserved in his criticism of the American role in Iraq and extended his criticism to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"The war has been a disaster, the occupation continues to be a great disaster," he told the Spanish radio station Cadena SER. "It hasn't generated anything but more violence and hate. What simply cannot be is that - after it became so clear how badly it was handled - there be no consequences.

"Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair will have to reflect and engage in some self-criticism, so things like that don't happen again."

"Spain is going to see eye to eye with Europe again," he said later at his first news conference, pledging to repair relations with France and Germany. "Spain is going to be more pro-Europe than ever. I am deeply convinced of that."

Failing to heed protests

For some analysts, the election results offered proof that the European politicians who failed to heed last year's major protests against the Iraq war across the continent would pay at the ballot box.

"The extent of domestic pressure confronting U.S. allies in Europe should not be underestimated," said to Simon Henderson, a London-based analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In a paper circulated yesterday, Henderson wrote that Zapatero is likely to position himself alongside German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, "who envision a multilateral world with U.S. power subservient to the will of the United Nations."

While some commentators said the election results also showed a European inclination to retreat in the face of militant attacks, the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder said they were about Iraq, not terror.

"Spain is about as united as you can get [on fighting terrorism]," said Daalder, a Bush critic who advised Democratic contender Howard Dean's unsuccessful campaign for the presidential nomination.

`A repudiation'

"It is the Bush administration that made the case that Iraq is the `central front' in the war on terror. ... What this really is is a repudiation of that central argument - that we needed to fight Iraq because of 9/11," Daalder said. "Spanish voters told George Bush they reject the notion that the best way to fight the war on terror is by invading Iraq."

Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Europeans "are not going to buy the argument that the war on Iraq is part of the war on terror."

Even though European leaders are worried about the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, the election results in Spain might make them hesitant to get more deeply involved. This could throw a wrench into proposals for making Iraq's reconstruction a NATO-run military operation.

American officials sought yesterday to highlight Spain's role in the effort to stabilize Iraq.

"The Spaniards have performed heroically and are critical to our efforts here," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, in Baghdad.

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