Spanish troops are ordered out of Iraq

Soldiers are to leave `as soon as possible'

U.S. fears efforts will suffer

Spain orders troops out `as soon as possible'

April 19, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MADRID, Spain -- Spain's new Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced yesterday that he was ordering Spanish troops to leave Iraq "as soon as possible."

Zapatero, speaking just 24 hours after he was sworn in, said he had ordered Defense Minister Jose Bono to "do what is necessary for the Spanish troops stationed in Iraq to return home" in the shortest possible time.

Zapatero said he had made his decision because it was unlikely that the United Nations would be playing a leading role in Iraq any time soon. Involvement of the United Nations had been his condition for Spain's 1,300 troops to remain.

The prime minister spoke briefly at the Moncloa Palace shortly after appointing his Cabinet. His new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is leaving for Washington this week for meetings Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and members of Congress. Iraq is expected to figure prominently in his discussions.

The trip will begin with a stop tomorrow in Ireland, the current holder of the European Union presidency.

Zapatero's move, though a serious setback, does not come as a surprise to the United States. Two high officials of the new Spanish government, in a briefing for reporters, said that since Zapatero's election victory March 14, intense consultations had been held with the heads of government or top officials of 12 nations.

Bono made an undisclosed visit to Washington this month and met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Spain also conferred with Britain, Italy and Poland, which have troops in Iraq.

A Defense Ministry official said at a briefing that the Spanish withdrawal might take a month.

The officials said that the new government made its announcement on its first day to avoid being drawn into a debate and to avoid possible complications in the field. It did not want any future event, such as the taking of hostages or the deaths of any soldiers, to be used to misinterpret Spain's motives.

At the White House yesterday, officials sounded resigned to Spain's withdrawal from the coalition. "We knew from the recent Spanish election that it was the new prime minister's intention to withdraw Spanish troops," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the National Security Council. He said the White House expected Spain to carry out the decision "in a coordinated, responsible and orderly manner."

But officials made little secret of the fact that the decision was a bitter moment for Bush. They fear that it will make an international effort in Iraq harder to maintain as the June 30 date approaches for the handover of sovereign power to the Iraqi government.

Rice said in an interview on Fox News Sunday that she was concerned that terrorists could draw "the wrong lesson from Spain" and try other attacks aimed at dividing the coalition.

Nonetheless, McCormack said, "We are grateful to the other coalition partners for their recent expressions of solidarity."

Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic candidate for president, issued a statement yesterday in Washington about Spain's announcement. "I regret Prime Minister Zapatero's decision," he said. "Rather than losing partners, I believe it's critical that we find new coalition partners to share the burden in Iraq."

The new Spanish government has been accused by Spain's departing leaders and by American conservatives of capitulating to terrorists. Elections here occurred three days after terrorist attacks on March 11 left 191 people dead and more than 1,400 wounded.

On the eve of the elections, many Spanish voters apparently turned against the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar, which had a narrow lead in the polls, because they thought it had been less than truthful about the terrorist attacks, insisting on blaming Basque separatists while evidence was strongly pointing to Islamic militants.

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