- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

MADRID — Spain’s incoming Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced yesterday he will withdraw his country’s 1,300 troops from Iraq, saying the “disastrous” U.S.-led effort there had increased terrorism worldwide.

With al Qaeda increasingly believed to have staged the series of train bombings that killed 200 persons Thursday, the Spanish prime minister-elect pledged to focus on fighting terrorism, but said that needed to be done primarily through collaboration within the expanded European Community.

He also said he wanted “cordial” ties with Washington, but “magnificent” relations with France and Germany, the two countries that most vigorously opposed the war.

“I have said clearly in recent months that, unless there is a change in that the United Nations take control and the occupiers give up political control, the Spanish troops will come back, and the limit for their presence there is June 30,” Mr. Zapatero told reporters on the morning after his upset victory.

“Time has shown that the arguments for [the war] lacked credibility and the occupation has been managed badly,” he said. Referring to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a separate radio interview, he said, “You cannot organize a war with lies.”

Mr. Zapatero achieved an unexpected victory in parliamentary elections Sunday, just three days after a wave of terror attacks claimed by al Qaeda as retribution for Spain’s support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Many voters appear to have been angered that outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close ally of Mr. Bush, initially blamed the Basque terrorist group ETA for the attacks, which injured 1,500.

In Washington, U.S. counterterrorism officials told The Washington Times they are investigating whether al Qaeda and the ETA might have collaborated on the attacks.

New information about the attack was obtained by Spanish authorities over the weekend with the arrest of several people, including three Moroccans, at least one of whom was known as an Islamic extremist.

“There is still not sufficient information to make a judgment about who was responsible,” one official said. “But it appears increasingly more likely that Islamic extremists were involved. Whether they are linked to al Qaeda, that is a possibility.”

As for a joint ETA-al Qaeda operation, the official said, “We can’t rule it out.”

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Friday that about 80 members of an ETA offshoot traveled to Iraq in the days before U.S. military action began.

Two of the ETA foreign fighters in Iraq were arrested Feb. 29 in a van bound for Madrid with 1,100 pounds of explosives, the Milan daily stated. The two men were identified as part of the Euskal Herria Brigade, Basque Territory, an ETA faction linked to Iraqi opposition fighters operating in Fallujah and Al Ramadi.

The Italian military intelligence service, known SISMI, said in a recent report to the Italian parliament that Islamic terrorists were working with other indigenous terrorist groups in Europe, the report said.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “I’m satisfied there are connections to al Qaeda.”

White House officials said Mr. Bush called Mr. Zapatero yesterday to congratulate him on his election victory and that both said they “look forward to working together, particularly on a shared commitment to fighting terrorism.”

However, there was no discussion of the Spaniard’s plan to withdraw from Iraq, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Aides to Mr. Blair said after talks between the British prime minister and Mr. Zapatero that the latter might be persuaded to keep his troops in Iraq.

Noting that sovereignty in Iraq will be returned to Iraqis on June 30, they said Mr. Zapatero might be satisfied with a new U.N. resolution that recognizes the change and provides for a significant U.N. role.

Bill Gertz in Washington contributed to this article.

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