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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Spaniard's Triumph May Be His Downfall

Partnership with the U.S. on Iraq is costing the premier popularity at home.

March 03, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — In a calmer world, the close alliance that Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has forged with President Bush could have been the crowning achievement of Aznar's political career.

There's only one problem: Most Spaniards are dead set against a war in Iraq. Rather than celebrating a new partnership with the world's only superpower, they have declared their displeasure in some of the biggest antiwar marches in Europe.

Like his friend Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Aznar has been paying a cost for his hard-line policy on Iraq. Some of his allies here mutter that he has lost his political touch after nearly seven years during which he cut unemployment, cracked down on Basque terrorism, won a landslide reelection and presided over an economic and cultural boom.

Spain has flexed its diplomatic muscles during the Iraq crisis, joining the United States and Britain at the United Nations in sponsoring a proposed Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Last week, Aznar became one of the few world leaders to visit the Bush ranch in Texas: a milestone for a pragmatic, steely former tax inspector who narrowly escaped a car bombing in 1995.

At home, however, the Socialist opposition has overtaken Aznar's center-right Popular Party in polls as May regional elections approach. Antiwar feeling among voters, more than 70% of whom disagree with Aznar on Iraq, transcends party lines.

Nonetheless, Aznar seems unruffled. In an interview Friday, he said Spain must stand by the U.S. during one of the most difficult moments in modern history.

"I want Europe and the United States to have a strong relationship," he said. "When Europe and the United States have been divided, the world has paid a high price.... I sincerely don't think getting agitated by anti-Americanism is a good idea. Maybe there are people who are nostalgic for the Berlin Wall. We need each other mutually, more than some might think."

Aznar said he hopes that the U.N. will disarm Iraq peacefully and that the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution can win nine votes in the Security Council. His government has pledged to provide air bases in the event of a U.S. military operation and to send troops to help defend Turkey.

Asked about widespread expectations that he would support a U.S. attack even without U.N. approval, Aznar responded, "Spain will know its place."

Aznar tends to go with his instincts, keep things simple and avoid the torrential rhetoric that is common in Spanish politics.

Perhaps because of his family's contacts with Mexico and with Latinos in Florida and Texas, Bush seems more comfortable with the down-to-earth Aznar than with the more formal French president, Jacques Chirac, or Germany's center-left chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder. The Franco-German antiwar initiative has chilled Bush's relations with those two, who see themselves as making up the power center of Europe.

Aznar, for his part, has clashed periodically with Chirac and Schroeder, as Spain, Britain and Italy have challenged their dominance of the European Union. The Spanish-British-Italian bloc has grown closer during the Iraq dispute and could gain strength with the entry into the EU of pro-U.S. countries from Central Europe.

Aznar turned 50 last week. He seems younger, but his solemnity suggests he looked older than his years when he was 20. He granted an interview Friday evening in his official residence at the Moncloa Palace, which was patrolled by a couple of bodyguards and a gray cat.

Aznar's week had taken him from Texas to Paris to Rome to Madrid, a packed schedule that included an audience with Pope John Paul II and a meeting that morning with Blair. During the weekend that Aznar spent in Crawford, Texas, he said, he and the president had long talks about Iraq, the world and their families, even though communication was complicated.

"We speak a little bit in Spanish, a little bit in English, a little Spanglish and also with an interpreter," said Aznar, smiling. "We understand each other well."

Aznar said he and Bush discussed the visceral dislike that many Europeans feel toward the president. When a million marchers led by politicians and artists such as film director Pedro Almodovar protested last month in Madrid, some of the loudest voices condemned Bush as a worse danger than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"There is a prejudice against Republicans from Texas," Aznar said. "Those who you hear the most are those with these ideas. But there are many people, whom you might not hear, who don't share these ideas."

Aznar's embrace of the superpower across the Atlantic has distanced him from a Spanish diplomatic tradition that emphasized relations with Europe. His shift is based on the expectation that the U.S. will resolve the Iraq crisis decisively, critics say -- but they call it a gamble.

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