- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s electoral defeat in the wake of terrorist attacks in Madrid has raised concerns among U.S. and foreign officials about whether terrorists can drive other American allies from office.

“This was a big defeat for us,” a Pentagon official said. “Al Qaeda caused a regime change better than we did in Baghdad. No cost.”

Also, a White House official said any attack against a nation that has battled terrorism as tenaciously as Spain “sends a terrible message” to other countries engaged in the global war against terrorism.

The concerns came as Spain’s incoming prime minister yesterday repeated his campaign vow to pull his nation’s 1,300 troops out of Iraq by June 30, unless “the United Nations take control and the occupiers give up political control.”

Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also criticized President Bush for deposing Saddam Hussein, telling a Spanish radio network that “the war in Iraq was a disaster.”

However, other members of the anti-Saddam coalition, including Australia, Britain and Poland, held firm yesterday.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who is up for re-election later this year, downplayed the possibility of terrorists driving him from office with a similar attack.

“I think it’s drawing a pretty long bow to start comparing what happened in Spain to what might happen at the end of this year,” said Mr. Howard, who supported Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I think people ought to take a bit of a cold shower on that and not get too excited.”

But Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said al Qaeda might conclude from Sunday’s election results in Spain that they have the power to punish leaders who supported Mr. Bush’s liberation of Iraq.

Particularly vulnerable are leaders who backed the United States in the face of intense domestic opposition.

“Governments that acted without the strong support of their own peoples are very vulnerable,” he said. “I mean, up to 80 percent of Spaniards opposed the war.”

Meanwhile, other U.S. allies in Operation Iraqi Freedom vowed to continue supporting the United States, despite the Madrid bombings and pressure from opposition lawmakers. Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said he would not withdraw troops leading a multinational force in southern Iraq.

“It would amount to an admission that the terrorists are right and that they are stronger than the whole civilized world,” Mr. Miller said.

Several Latin American nations and Japan also said yesterday they would not reconsider their decisions to send troops to Iraq.

Spain’s threat to pull out was roundly condemned yesterday by conservative politicians in Western Europe.

“It’s a dangerously naive option,” said Italian lawmaker Emma Bonino, a former senior European Union official and a political ally of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “It would be irresponsible for Spain or anyone to leave Iraq and hence bolster a civil war there.”

She said it also would encourage terrorists to kill across Europe, hoping for further changes of course.

“Whoever is calling for pulling out troops is just obeying the political agenda of [Osama] bin Laden,” added Mrs. Bonino, who said she initially had opposed the launching of the Iraq war.

A senior figure in Britain’s Conservative Party, Michael Portillo, lamented that terrorists had managed to topple a democratic government and “will now think they can do the same at future elections all around Europe.”

In an interview with the BBC, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned yesterday that all Western countries were under “a threat from Islamic extremism.”

“No one should believe that somehow if you say, ‘I opposed the military action in Iraq,’ that this makes you safer or exempts you as a potential victim,” he said.

In October, Poland and Spain were named as targets on a taped message attributed to bin Laden.

“We reserve the right to respond at the appropriate time and place against all the countries participating in this unjust war [in Iraq], particularly Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy,” said the voice on the tape, broadcast on Al Jazeera.

A posting on Global Islamic Media, a Web site that supports al Qaeda and is monitored by intelligence agencies, said on Dec. 10 that attacks on Spain could help the Socialists domestically and result in Madrid pulling out of Iraq.

The upcoming Spanish general elections “must be exploited in the extreme,” the posting noted. “We think the Spanish government will not stand more than two blows or three at the most before it will be forced to withdraw [from Iraq] because of public pressure.”

The tract, prepared by the Centre for Services to the Mujahideen, added: “If [Spanish] forces remain after these blows, the victory of the Socialist party will be almost guaranteed, and the withdrawal of Spanish forces will be on its campaign manifesto. Lastly, we assert that the withdrawal of Spanish or Italian forces from Iraq will create tremendous pressure on the British presence which Tony Blair may not be able to bear.

“So the dominos will fall quickly — but the basic problem remains, how to bring down the first one.”

Vice President Dick Cheney said last week’s attacks in Madrid merely proved that the world must continue to aggressively root out terrorism.

“The attack in Spain once again reveals the brutality of our enemy and once again shows that the fight against terrorism is the responsibility of all free nations,” Mr. Cheney told Republicans at a Phoenix fund-raiser. “The terrorists are testing the unity and the resolve of the civilized world, and we must rise to that task.”

The electoral defeat of Mr. Aznar was a blow to Mr. Bush, who met with him exactly one year ago today in the Azores to map strategy on the eve of war. The Spanish leader and his wife, Ana Botella, who was running for political office, both privately expressed concern to Mr. Bush that their support for war was enormously unpopular.

The president urged them to stand strong and expressed hope that their leadership would be rewarded at the ballot box.

After Mr. Aznar’s defeat Sunday, Mr. Bush placed a ceremonial telephone call to his successor to offer congratulations yesterday.

“The two leaders said they both looked forward to working together, particularly on our shared commitment to fighting terrorism,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Bush’s closest ally in the Iraq war, made a similar courtesy call to fellow socialist Mr. Zapatero, which Mr. Blair’s office described as “warm and friendly.”

Rowan Scarborough in Washington and Paul Martin in Madrid contributed to this report.

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