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Spanish Premier Orders Soldiers Home from Iraq


By Marlise Simons

New York Times
April 19, 2004

Spain's new Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodrí­guez Zapatero, keeping a firm campaign promise, announced Sunday that he was ordering Spanish troops to leave Iraq "as soon as possible."

Just 24 hours after he was sworn in, Mr. Zapatero said he had ordered Defense Minister José Bono to "do what is necessary" for the Spanish troops to return home in the shortest possible time. Mr. 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, which had been his condition for Spain's 1,300 troops to remain. Because of troop rotation, more than 1,400 are there now.

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

Mr. Zapatero's move, though a serious setback, will 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 Mr. Zapatero's election victory on March 14, intense consultations had been held with top officials of 12 nations. Mr. Bono made an undisclosed visit to Washington this month and met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Spain conferred also with Britain, Italy and Poland, which have troops in Iraq. A Defense Ministry official said at a briefing that the Spanish withdrawal from the south-central region around the holy city of Najaf might take one month.

Officials said 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. They said they did not want any future event, like a hostage taking or the death of any soldiers, to be used to misinterpret Spain's motives. At the White House on Sunday, officials sounded resigned to Spain's withdrawal. "We knew from the recent Spanish election that it was the new prime minister's intention to withdraw Spanish troops," said Sean McCormack, the spokesman for the National Security Council. He said the White House expected Spain "to implement the decision in a coordinated, responsible and orderly manner."

But officials made little secret that the decision was a bitter moment for President Bush. They fear that it will make it more difficult to continue to internationalize the forces in Iraq as the June 30 date approaches for the transfer of sovereign power to an Iraqi government. Ms. Rice said Sunday in an interview on Fox News that she was concerned that terrorists could draw "the wrong lesson from Spain" and attempt other attacks aimed at dividing the allies. Nonetheless, Mr. McCormack said "we are grateful to the other coalition partners for their recent expressions of solidarity."

John Kerry, the likely Democratic candidate for president, issued a statement on Sunday 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 the departing leadership and by American conservatives of capitulating to terrorists. Elections here came three days after terrorist attacks on March 11 left 192 people dead and more than 1,400 wounded. But on the eve of the elections, many voters apparently turned against the conservative government of José Marí­a Aznar because they felt it was less than truthful about the terrorist attacks, insisting at first on blaming Basque separatists while evidence was already strongly pointing to Islamist militants.

Richard Gardner, a former American ambassador to Spain, here on a private visit, called the troop pullout bad news and said, "Let's hope it does not trigger other withdrawals." He added, "Now it is important that Spain demonstrates its willingness to assume a larger share of the military burden in Afghanistan, the Balkans or other areas."

A European diplomat called the pullout a serious setback for Washington because Spain's presence was more important symbolically than in a military sense. The United States has been eager to maintain the international veneer to the increasingly beleaguered allied force, which is dominated by its 130,000 troops. But other Europeans are expected to stay the course. For example, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, which has about 3,000 soldiers in Iraq, said late last week that a withdrawal was "absolutely out of the question."

On Wednesday, Iraqi insurgents killed one of four Italian security guards who had been traveling with an American supply convoy. They threatened to kill the others unless Italy withdrew its troops from Iraq. The new Spanish foreign minister, Mr. Moratinos, a career diplomat, is making the hasty trip to Washington to explain that the new government had no choice but to bring the troops home. A senior Socialist Party official said the minister would emphasize that the decision by Mr. Zapatero was not anti-American, but rather the fulfillment of a pledge he had been making for the past year. He is also expected to discuss a future role for Spain in Iraq, like training Iraqi police officers or helping in reconstruction.

Mr. Zapatero said Sunday that "driven by the deepest democratic convictions, the government cannot and will not act against the popular will or behind the backs of the Spanish people." Earlier, in his inaugural speech, he had told Parliament that no Spanish troops would be deployed without parliamentary approval. Mr. Aznar had not put the decision to Parliament last year, even though opinion polls consistently reported that up to 90 percent of Spaniards were against sending troops to Iraq.

On the ground in Iraq, an early withdrawal of Spanish troops would create an awkward problem for the United States military command, if it occurred before there has been a resolution of the current confrontation with the rebel Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. When Mr. Sadr's militiamen began their uprising across southern Iraq two weeks ago, their first major target was a Spanish garrison on the outskirts of Najaf.

American commanders spoke with admiration of the Spanish troops' performance, which provided an important morale boost to the American commanders, who have bridled at suggestions that the United States is increasingly isolated in the conflict here.

Dale Fuchs, in Madrid, John F. Burns, in Baghdad, and David E. Sanger, in Washington, contributed reporting for this article.

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