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Spanish Victor Says Iraq War Based on 'Lies'

The incoming Socialist prime minister plans to remove his nation's 1,300 troops by June 30. Washington downplays the apparent setback.

March 16, 2004|Sonni Efron and Bruce Wallace | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — Spain's new leader promised Monday to withdraw his nation's 1,300 troops from Iraq and called the war "an error" based on "lies." But the Bush administration sought to contain the political damage from the weekend's upset victory by Spain's Socialist Party, stressing that the two nations shared the goal of defeating terrorism.

In a move that would fracture the coalition of 35 nations with troops in Iraq, incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he would withdraw Spanish troops in Iraq by June 30 unless they were serving under a new United Nations mandate.

Although U.S. officials played down the significance of Zapatero's threat, independent analysts called the electoral defeat of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party a disaster for the Bush administration.

The blow to Aznar, the second-most important U.S. ally on Iraq after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, threatens to undermine other world leaders who cooperate with the United States over the objections of their public, the said. "This is the third big ally which has had an election in which those who ran against Bush's foreign policy won: Germany in 2002, South Korea in 2003 and now Spain in 2004," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"If there is a message here for political leaders, it is, 'Don't go and visit Crawford,' " he added, referring to Bush's Texas hometown.

Aznar's surprise defeat followed bombings that killed at least 200 and injured 1,500 in Madrid on Thursday.

The government initially blamed the attacks on Basque separatists, but on the eve of the election, a previously unknown Al Qaeda figure claimed responsibility for the bombings, saying they were intended to punish Spain for its cooperation with the United States in the war in Iraq, which up to 90% of Spaniards opposed, polls showed.

The electoral results risk sending the inadvertent message that terrorists can succeed in unseating governments they dislike, said Philip H. Gordon, a former National Security Council European specialist.

"Clearly, this was a bad result in every possible way," Gordon said. "It took away a staunch conservative ally in Europe, it undermines the notion that we have a coalition, and it sends a message that governments can win by distancing themselves from the United States."

The Bush administration now needs to "try to avoid a scenario in which bashing the U.S. becomes the way governments in Europe get elected," Gordon said. Aznar had governed Spain for the last eight years and was not running for reelection, but had designated a successor.

Meanwhile, leaders of nations who are assisting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, including Britain, Italy and Poland, will "have to see this as a warning," Gordon said. "Their private communications to the U.S. will be, 'Don't ask too much of us, because we don't want to suffer the same fate as Aznar.' "

One State Department official said Washington was worried that the perception that the Spanish government had fallen because of its Iraq policy could affect other nations -- and that American friendship could endanger its allies.

The official said friendly Arab nations in particular had pleaded with the United States for months, "Don't commend us too highly, because right now too tight an embrace of us coming from the U.S. can hurt us."

On Monday, U.S. officials reached out to the incoming Spanish leadership and downplayed stinging criticism emanating from Madrid.

After placing a condolence call to Aznar, President Bush called Zapatero on Monday to congratulate him. The two leaders pledged to work together on countering terrorism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. In the 10-minute conversation, Bush and Zapatero did not discuss the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, McClellan said.

One U.S. official noted that the United States and Spain had had a long and stable relationship no matter which political party was in power in Madrid. "They've been good strong members of NATO for a long time," he said. "This isn't a relationship where we go from one extreme to another."

The official said Washington's goal was to "engage with them meaningfully" to try to minimize any abrupt change in course.

But the 40-year-old Zapatero, a lawyer who in 18 years in parliament had earned a reputation as a politician who tried not to offend, made clear that he intended to steer Spain out of the American orbit and back toward European countries, including France and Germany, that opposed the Iraq war.

"Spain is going to be more pro-Europe than ever," promised Zapatero, who is expected to assume his post within weeks.

He lashed out at Bush and Blair, saying they needed "to engage in some self-criticism" over their conduct of the war. "You can't bombard a people just in case they pose a perceived threat," Zapatero said, referring to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "You can't organize a war on the basis of lies."

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