- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

PAMPLONA, Spain — Spain’s Socialists triumphed at the polls last night in a resounding victory over the conservatives after the pro-American government of Jose Maria Aznar had tried to deny an al Qaeda connection to Thursday’s railway bombings.

Socialist party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who will take over from Mr. Aznar, hasvowed to bring Spain’s 1,300 troops home from Iraq when their tour of duty ends in July. But he has also said he plans to take a tough line on domestic as well as international threats.

“My most immediate priority is to beat all forms of terrorism,” Mr. Zapatero said yesterday.

The Spanish Socialist Workers Party declared victory with 96 percent of the votes counted. The party soared from 125 seats in the outgoing 350-seat legislature to 164 in the incoming one. Mr. Aznar’s Popular Party fell to 148 seats from 183. The Socialists will have to create an alliance with other parties to form a government.

Voters, many wearing the black-ribbon symbols of national grief, turned out in large numbers. But with no exit polls and with no surveys taken since March 8, few analysts had expected a swing to the left.

“He lied to the public that we Basques planted the bombs, and when the public realized his tactics, they turned against him in huge numbers,” said Pernardo Barrena, a member of Batasuna, a banned political organization allied with the ETA guerrilla group that has killed more than 800 people in three decades of separatist struggle.

The government had initially accused the ETA of killing the 200 persons who died in near-simultaneous explosions that ripped through four trains in the morning rush-hour Thursday. Some 1,500 people were wounded. Al Qaeda issued two claims that it was behind the bombings, saying it was in revenge for Spain’s backing of the U.S.-led war on Iraq and for being part of “Crusader Europe.”

The government later admitted finding a tape with verses from the Koran in a van containing detonators, and it arrested three Moroccans and two Indians. But ministers still appeared to blame the ETA.

Many voters said Spain was paying in blood for having backed the United States in an unpopular war, and that Mr. Aznar had been afraid to reveal al Qaeda’s role for fear of a voter backlash perhaps made worse because of his purported deceit.

Mr. Aznar, who was planning to make way for a new leader from his own party, had guided his country to a solid economy. His alliance with the United States and Britain over Iraq and the war on terror had pleased many older Spaniards, if only because it meant the country had returned to the international mainstream three decades after Franco’s dictatorship ended.

The row over the bombers’ identity soured the election even on polling day. Protesters shouted “Liar” and “Get our troops out of Iraq” as Popular Party candidate Mariano Rajoy voted.

Yesterday morning at the huge railway station in Bilbao, candles dripped wax onto the stone floors amid bouquets of flowers. But even in commemorating the 200 dead, a political battle was evident.

Handwritten or printed messages read, “Assassins” and “No to Terrorism,” but were interspersed with demands that the outgoing prime minister take the blame. One notice read: “Action: Iraq, 4,000 civilians dead. Reaction: Madrid, 200 civilians dead. To Blame: Aznar.”

The Socialists have pledged to withdraw Spain’s troops from Iraq if the United Nations does not take control by June 30, when Washington plans to hand power to Iraqis. Opinion polls showed as many as 90 percent of Spaniards had opposed the Iraq war.

Some voters said they wanted to display unity for democracy after the worst guerrilla attack in Europe since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a U.S. airliner killed 270 persons.

But for many voters, their intentions were finalized just hours before polling began. Officials said a purported al Qaeda video had been found in a waste bin on the outskirts of Madrid and that three Moroccans and two Indians had been arrested in connection with the attack.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes told a news conference in the early hours a reputed spokesman for al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the bombings on the video.

Morocco identified its three detained citizens as Jamal Zougam, 30, an office worker; mechanic Mohamed Bekkali, 31; and Mohamed Chaoui, 34, a factory worker.

Late yesterday, Spanish government documents and officials said Zougam had links to a suspected cell of al Qaeda.

On the tape, a man speaking in Moroccan-accented Arabic said: “If you don’t stop your injustices, more blood will flow and these attacks are very little compared with what may happen with what you call terrorism,” he said, according to a transcript in Spanish from the Interior Ministry.

A purported al Qaeda letter on Thursday also claimed the group was responsible for the 10 simultaneous bombings on the crowded trains.

The ETA issued a second statement, made public yesterday, denying any role. The size of the attack would be unprecedented in the group’s history.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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