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Hard Lessons From Spain

March 16, 2004

The courageous people of Spain voted in anger and sorrow, with a shattered train car as a polling-station backdrop in Madrid, with tear-stained faces and in wheelchairs made necessary by last week's horrific train station bombings that killed 200 people. When the ballots were counted Sunday, voters turned out the Spanish government that had allied with the United States to support the war in Iraq and send troops there. But this democratic display of discontent should not be mistaken for a surrender to terrorism.

The Socialist Party's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister-designate, pledged in victory "to combat all forms of terrorism." That message should be heard by Al Qaeda, now considered the most likely suspect in the worst terror attack in Western Europe in years, and by ETA, the Basque separatist group that has long plagued Spain with kidnappings and bombings.

Before Thursday's train blasts, the rightist party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was expected to extend its eight-year rule. But many Spaniards blamed Aznar's government for initially insisting that ETA -- not Islamic terrorists opposed to Spain's involvement in Iraq -- had committed the despicable bombing. The attacks may not have changed votes but they increased turnout, benefiting the Socialists.

The U.S. should read the results as demonstrating anew that most of the world does not see the Iraq campaign as part of the global war on terror. Rodriguez Zapatero on Monday called for "reflection and self-criticism" by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He added with exceptional bluntness: "You can't organize a war with lies." Pre-election polls showed 90% of Spaniards opposed the Iraq war and Aznar's backing for it. Antiwar sentiment is widespread in other nations that have sent troops to Iraq -- Britain and Japan prominent among them. Rodriguez Zapatero promised to push Spain closer to France and Germany, away from Britain and the U.S.

The U.S. needs to work to decrease its isolation from European nations that should be close allies; fighting terrorists like Al Qaeda requires other countries' help. So does rebuilding and providing security in Iraq. The sympathy much of the world felt for the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks has been squandered by invading Iraq with too little global support and failing to give U.N. inspectors more time to search for Iraqi arms.

The body bags outside Madrid's Atocha train station and the commuters sitting stunned on the tracks were graphic reminders of terrorism's evil, its assault on innocents. All governments must cooperate to cut off financing, arrest individuals and cripple terrorist groups; to do so, governments must win the support of their people for action. Regime change in Spain has lessons to be heeded far outside that country's borders.

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