- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

DIWANIYAH, Iraq — Spanish troops in central Iraq, whose mission includes building schools and supplying medicine to local hospitals, suddenly find their work threatened not by terrorist attacks, but by a new government back in Madrid.

For Spaniards and much of the rest of Europe, March 11 became another September 11, as Islamist terrorists are the main suspects in the bombing of Madrid commuter train lines that killed 190 persons and injured about 1,500 others.

For 1,300 Spanish soldiers in Iraq, the horror turned to disbelief three days later, as voters back home voted in socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Mr. Zapatero denounced the Iraq war and campaigned on a pledge to pull the troops out when the U.S.-led coalition turns over power to an Iraqi government on June 30.

“It’s stupid to leave here now,” said Capt. Javier Palacios. “What can I say? They are the politicians. They do their thing. I’m just a soldier.”

In Madrid, the prime minister-elect stuck to his pledge to pull out of Iraq in meetings with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom were in Spain for ceremonies honoring victims of the March 11 attacks.

A senior aide to Mr. Zapatero said he stood firm against the U.S. and British entreaties, saying Spain would stay in Iraq only in the unlikely event that the United Nations was given firm control of the country’s political and security transition.

Capt. Palacios is more than an ordinary soldier. As a lawyer, he serves at home as a judge advocate general in the Spanish military.

In Iraq, he leads a team that is working with local authorities to bring law and order to Diwaniyah, a town 100 miles south of Baghdad, where the call to prayer from a local mosque rings above the din of donkey carts and beat-up taxis.

A stocky man with a teddy bear’s warmth and the presence of a football linebacker, he readily adopted a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times as they searched the streets one recent morning looking for Spanish soldiers to interview.

The first stop on the captain’s impromptu tour of Diwaniyah’s fledgling legal district was the new lawyer-registration office, where he took delivery of some new computers to help keep track of the city’s lawyers and their court cases.

His eyes rolled ever so slightly when told that the invoice said 16 computers, but that only 15 had turned up.

Much of the law being used in Diwaniyah was inherited from Saddam’s regime and can be traced back to British colonial rule. One difference, Capt. Palacios explained, is that L. Paul Bremer, U.S. civilian administrator for the country, has outlawed capital punishment.

“The problem was not the law itself, but the implementation of the law under Saddam Hussein, when everything was controlled by politics,” he said. “My main job here is to establish the rule of law.”

The final visit was to a property-settlement office, a new legal concept being introduced by the U.S.-led coalition to compensate people in this area — mainly Shi’ite Muslims — whose land and houses had been seized by officials of Saddam’s regime.

Spanish troops say they can only continue with their work as they wait for the new government in Madrid to take power in about a month.

“We’re continuing our work as if nothing has changed,” Capt. Palacios said. “I’m still not so sure the Spanish will leave. The new government that has been elected still has to decide what it wants.”

The mood at Base Espana, where off-duty soldiers chatted on the Internet and played Nintendo, reflected the uncertainty back home.

“As soldiers, we have no political opinions. We follow and complete orders,” said the base’s public information officer, Maj. Carols Herradon. He said it was against the rules for soldiers to answer a reporter’s questions about Spanish politics.

The soldiers had sent in their absentee ballots weeks before the Madrid bombing, and most of them probably voted for the pro-U.S. party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a first lieutenant, as he delivered boxes of surgical gowns, caps and gloves to the nearby hospital.

“It came as a huge surprise. Everybody thought Aznar’s party would win the election,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

A pensive Dr. Hussein Yamir, the Iraqi administrator of the 400-bed teaching hospital, recalled how local people had come with guns to drive away looters before American Marines arrived. Three months later, the Spanish forces took over and brought ultrasound equipment and dialysis machines.

Gesturing to the boxes of gloves and gowns, Dr. Yamir said: “This stuff is hard to get in Iraq today. If the Spanish leave, who will replace them?”

Sgt. Alejandro Ponilla, while waving to excited children from his perch atop an armored personnel carrier on an evening drive through the city, asked a similar question: “I don’t know who would come [to replace us] — the Americans, maybe the Japanese?”

The contingent led by Spain already includes more than a thousand troops from four Central American nations. In July, it had been slated to take control of a 9,000-member multinational force, now under Polish command, that patrols central and southern Iraq.

On the streets of Diwaniyah, opinions differed. Pedestrians in sidewalk interviews repeatedly said they wanted the Spanish to leave and for the U.S. Marines to return. On the streets of Baghdad, by contrast, it can take quite awhile to find anyone willing to utter a kind word in public for U.S. forces.

“It’s good for us that the Spanish want to go home,” said Abdullah Hussein Salman, 64, as he squatted next to a pile of newspapers for sale. “We like the Americans.”

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