Wednesday, March 17, 2004

President Bush yesterday said terrorists will “never shake the will of the United States,” and the prime minister of the Netherlands said his country stands “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States to fight global terrorism.

In the wake of Spain’s planned withdrawal of troops in Iraq after a suspected al Qaeda attack in Madrid last week, Mr. Bush used the Dutch leader’s visit as an opportunity to rally the rest of his global allies in the war on terrorism.

“Terrorists will kill innocent life in order to try to get the world to cower,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s what they want to do. And they’ll never shake the will of the United States. We understand the stakes, and we will work with our friends to bring justice to the terrorists.”

Mr. Bush pointed out that al Qaeda not only has attacked Spain in the past year, but also Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“They kill wherever they can, and it’s essential that the free world remain strong and resolute and determined,” Mr. Bush said.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, speaking at a joint press conference with the president, said his country remains a staunch U.S. ally and urged other countries to continue to fight against terrorism.

“It’s important that the world society, the international community, stands shoulder to shoulder and shows its solidarity to fight against these terrible attacks,” Mr. Balkenende said. “We share that same view, and we will work together.”

The prime minister said he and Mr. Bush did not discuss what to do in Iraq after the coalition hands over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30, when Spain said it will pull its forces. Any decision about Dutch participation after that date, he said, would be made then.

“That is the responsibility of the Dutch government and Dutch parliament, and we’ll talk about it,” Mr. Balkenende said.

Almost all of the other governments helping to rebuild Iraq said they would stay the course.

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said abandoning Iraq now “would amount to an admission that the terrorists are right and that they are stronger than the civilized world.”

Leaders of Australia, Japan, Britain, Ukraine and Bulgaria also said they would not pull their troops out of Iraq.

However, the defense secretary of Honduras said his country will withdraw the 370 troops that it had committed to aid the Spanish contingent in Iraq. Officials in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which also sent forces to supplement Spain’s force of 1,300, said they’d remain in Iraq.

Mr. Bush said he was confident the Netherlands, an influential European nation, would continue its staunch support.

“The prime minister has got issues at home that he’ll deal with,” Mr. Bush said. “But there’s no doubt that he understands the stakes and this historic opportunity with which we’re faced.”

The cordial meeting with Mr. Balkenende stood in stark contrast with the new, cooler, relationship being forged between the United States and Spain.

Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist who ran on an anti-Iraq war platform, said he’ll withdraw Spain from the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in July.

The attack in Madrid last week, blamed by many on al Qaeda, killed 201 persons and turned public opinion in Spain against Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close Bush ally in the war on terror and the reconstruction of Iraq.

Public opinion in the Netherlands also has soured its country’s support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and a Dutch reporter yesterday told Mr. Bush that “many Dutch people think the war in Iraq has little to do with the war against terrorism.”

Mr. Bush chuckled at the premise of the question and remained steadfast in his belief that the two conflicts are one in the same. Such doubters, he said, should think about the plight of the Iraqi people.

“I would ask them to think about the Iraqi citizens who don’t want people to withdraw because they want to be free,” Mr. Bush said. “I would remind the Dutch citizens that al Qaeda has an interest in Iraq for a reason. They realize this is a front in the war on terror, and they fear the spread of freedom and democracy in places like the greater Middle East.”

Mr. Bush said the coalition is making “good progress” in establishing free, democratic societies in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will “in itself start changing the regions in which they exist.”

“It’s essential that we remain side by side with the Iraqi people as they begin the process of self-government,” Mr. Bush said.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he is confident that other countries will step forward and take up the slack left by Spain’s retreat from Iraq.

“My guess is you’ll find other countries reacting just the opposite,” Mr. Rumsfeld told the BBC yesterday. “You’ll find countries stepping forward and saying, ‘Well, if that’s what that country is going to do, we’ll do just the opposite. We’ll add some troops.’”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said abandoning Iraq would be a “terrible message to send” to terrorists.

“We must send a message of unity, of strength and of resolve in the war on terrorism,” Mr. McClellan said. “Terrorists want to break our will and resolve. They want us to cut and run, but there is no negotiating with terrorists.

“We must continue to stand together and wage this war on the offensive,” he said. “That’s the way to confront the threat of terrorism.”

France, which vehemently opposed the war in Iraq, nonetheless yesterday received a fresh threat from Islamic extremists angry about the country’s new law banning the wearing of Muslim head scarves in schools.

Several French newspapers received a letter from an Islamist group that government officials have said is being considered a serious threat.

“They’re basically saying, ‘You thought you were safe because of your stand on Iraq, but France is no longer safe at all since February 10,’” said Jacques Esperandieu, deputy editor of the daily newspaper Le Parisien, which received a copy of the letter.

The head-scarf ban was passed on Feb. 10.

• This report is based in part on wire service reports.

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