- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

MADRID — Spain’s new leader intensified his criticism of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq yesterday, saying it was “turning into a fiasco.”

Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero refused to reconsider his pledge to pull Spain’s 1,300 troops out of Iraq by June 30.

About how he might respond if President Bush asked him to reconsider, Mr. Zapatero said in a radio interview: “I will listen to Mr. Bush, but my position is very clear and very firm.”

Meanwhile, a group claiming to have links with al Qaeda said yesterday it was calling a truce in its Spanish operations to see if the new Madrid government would withdraw its troops from Iraq.

In a statement sent to the Arabic language daily al-Hayat, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings that killed 201 persons, also urged its European units to stop all operations, Reuters news agency reported.

Mr. Zapatero had signaled his dislike of Mr. Bush’s policies during the Spanish election campaign, when he said he hoped Democratic challenger John Kerry would win in November.

The outgoing conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar supported the war against the wishes of most Spaniards, as measured by opinion polls.

Yesterday about 5,000 pro-Aznar demonstrators gathered outside the conservative Popular Party’s headquarters in downtown Madrid, deriding Mr. Zapatero as “the president of al Qaeda.”

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