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Backers of Aznar Take Aim at His Successor

March 18, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

MADRID — Thousands of protesters accused Spain's prime minister-designate of being "the president of Al Qaeda" in demonstrations Wednesday to support the defeated party of outgoing leader Jose Maria Aznar.

About 5,000 people gathered outside the conservative Popular Party's headquarters in downtown Madrid. Waving Spanish flags and banners, they protested the upset election of Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Sunday.

"Zapatero, president of Al Qaeda!" "Zapatero with terrorism!" and "Zapatero resign!" they chanted.

His election came three days after Madrid's rail lines were shaken by terrorist bombings that killed 201 people.

The protesters dispersed about 30 minutes after the defeated Popular Party's prime minister candidate, Mariano Rajoy, appeared on a balcony and applauded.

The bombings refocused attention on Aznar's decision to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which was hugely unpopular in Spain. At protests on the eve of the election, demonstrators accused Aznar of making Spain a target for terrorists.

In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed Wednesday that a team of FBI bomb technicians and forensic experts was ready to go to Madrid to help investigate, but that Spain had declined an offer of help made through the State Department.

FBI experts -- the U.S. government's most highly trained bomb technicians -- require an invitation from a host country to travel there and participate in an investigation. In this case, such a request was made to the government that lost the election, but U.S. officials were subsequently told that the FBI's help in Madrid was not needed.

FBI officials were angry and frustrated, the U.S. official said. The FBI is particularly interested in examining the types of explosives, blasting caps, detonators and other material used so it can add them to a global database at its Quantico, Va., training headquarters.

A bureau official said FBI agents were assisting the Spanish police in examining fingerprints obtained at the scene and sent to Washington, and in using those prints and several names linked to the bombings to get a better sense of who might have been involved.

U.S. and Spanish officials traded barbs Wednesday.

Top Republicans accused the Spaniards of appeasing terrorists by rejecting Aznar's party.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said Spain was "a nation who succumbed ... to threats of terrorism," and so changed the government.

Zapatero countered that the Iraq occupation was "turning into a fiasco." He will stick by his decision to pull 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq unless the United Nations takes control of peacekeeping, he said.

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