Spaniards rejected Iraq war long before train bombings

90% opposed policy before Sunday's ballot that elected new premier

March 18, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MADRID, Spain - Jesus Lazaro is concerned about what is happening not only in Spain but also in Iraq, and he fully supports the threat to pull out the 1,300 Spanish troops stationed there. He said he is concerned for his country but not running scared. He is not one to retreat.

"If people think the Spanish are surrendering to terrorism, they do not know the Spanish," said Lazaro, 47, a stonecutter from Madrid. "The Spanish do not surrender."

Yesterday, hours before the bombing that destroyed a Baghdad hotel, Spain's prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, reaffirmed his vow to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq by June 30, no matter what President Bush has to say about the need for countries to band together in the war against terror.

But most people here - Zapatero among them - have long rejected Bush's connection between fighting terrorism and going to war to remove Saddam Hussein. For them, last week's train blasts, which killed 201 people and injured 1,500, were confirmation that the world has become more dangerous, not less, just as they predicted. The new government merely reflects the view widely held here since long before the trains were bombed.

"We were against the war before we were attacked," Lazaro said, referring to polls which showed that Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar supported the war against the wishes of 90 percent of the Spanish. "It's not a matter of us leaving Iraq because of the terrorist attacks. If we stayed in Iraq, that would be because of the terrorists."

Madrid, slowly, is trying to return to normal, and there are signs big and small that it is succeeding. Workers repaired the tracks yesterday outside the Atocha train station. Musicians were again taking their places at the bottom of escalators in the stations of the city's subway system.

But on street corners, the destruction of the attacks was symbolized by the Spanish flags adorned with black ribbons and was felt by the Spanish still burying their dead.

And the possibility of further attacks, the accompanying unease, could not be ignored, not with so many police officers patrolling streets and train stations with bomb-sniffing dogs.

The divisions within Spain, too, were evident outside the headquarters of the conservative Popular Party's headquarters in Madrid, where about 5,000 people gathered to support the party and demonstrate against Zapatero's call to bring home the troops.

"It's bad for Spain, it's good for the terrorists," said Pilar Alvarez, a 48-year-old hotel worker who held a sign that said "Gracias!" Others held signs that read, "Zapatero, President of al-Qaeda."

"Zapatero is making Spain look weak," Alvarez said. "He should honor Spain's commitments and not rule according to the wishes of the terrorists."

No polls have been made public since last week's bombings to indicate how the Spanish feel about withdrawing the troops, but Zapatero won Sunday's election on just that platform. Opinion polls before the attacks showed Aznar's party winning by 3 to 5 percentage points and indicated that the war in Iraq was not a major issue.

Whether the bombings influenced the election by persuading Spaniards that support for the war had made their country a target for terrorists will never be truly known, but to many, Aznar's party lost the election by insisting that the Basque separatist group ETA was behind the bombings rather than Islamic militants, which increasingly appears to be the case.

But in interviews at the Atocha train station, which took the brunt of the attacks, at Plaza de Espana and the Avenue of America, many people interviewed said Zapatero is merely honoring a commitment made long ago and one that was supported by an overwhelming majority of Spaniards.

"Osama bin Laden attacked America," said Maite Villar, 29. "Why should we be in Iraq?"

For Spaniards like Ismael Capel, a 21-year-old mathematics student at Madrid's Complutense University, the words of Aznar's interior minister - "There is no doubt ETA is responsible" - were too much to take, too much like Vice President Dick Cheney's remarks in 2002: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

"Blaming ETA was the government's last lie," Capel said. "The government lied about why we supported the war then, said, `Oh, well, maybe we made a mistake,' and then tried to pretend the bombings had nothing to do with supporting the war even when it arrested Muslims. What are the Spanish supposed to do, say, `OK, everything was a lie, but because you got us into it with lies, we'll support you'?"

Zapatero sounded firmer yesterday in his commitment to pull out of Iraq than he was immediately after his election. In an hourlong interview yesterday on Onda Cero radio, he said that the occupation is "turning into a fiasco."

"Fighting terrorism with bombs ... with Tomahawk missiles, isn't the way to defeat terrorism," he said. "Terrorism is combated by the state of law. That's what I think Europe and the international community have to debate."

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