- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

BADAJOZ, Spain — In the old military city of Badajoz, the sound of drums and trumpets that welcomed Spanish troops home from Iraq had given way yesterday to a discontented silence among men who felt they had let down their allies.

Senior army officers are guarded in their response to the decision of the new socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to withdraw soldiers from Iraq.

But as a small contingent of Spanish troops prepares to remove the last vestiges of the country’s 1,300-strong presence in Iraq, there are whisperings of discontent from those now returned.

The previous prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, contrary to 90 percent of Spanish public opinion, committed the force in support of U.S. policy.

But Spanish soldiers now regret leaving Iraq so hastily after Mr. Zapatero’s election victory on March 11, three days after the terrorist train bombs in Madrid that killed 191 persons and wounded 1,900.

They also expressed disappointment over a lack of official recognition of their return and the public’s seeming willingness to forget them and their mission.

Cpl. Jose Francisco Garcia Casteneda, who previously completed three tours to Bosnia-Herzegovina, said: “We left our coalition colleagues behind and abandoned the local people who are living in wretched conditions.”

Sitting at the same cafe table, Sgt. Manuel Garcia, 31, went further in his criticism of the withdrawal. “We felt used and let down by the politicians. Zapatero made the move purely for his own popularity,” he said.

Two weeks ago, a beaming Mr. Zapatero went to the Botoa base, 15 miles outside Badajoz, for the ceremony to disband the Plus Ultra II brigade after its return.

Extremadura, the region around Badajoz, provided 80 percent of the troops in the brigade, which was stationed mainly in Diwaniya and Najaf.

Mr. Zapatero arrived after fulfilling his election pledge to withdraw the troops if the military mission in Iraq was not put under command of the United Nations by June 30.

“It was just a photo call. He did not address us and the king [Juan Carlos] did not come. No thanks were given. There was no encouragement for the job we did,” said Sgt. Garcia. “It was a celebration for Mr. Zapatero.”

Some soldiers disagreed with Spanish involvement from the outset but felt that it was wrong to withdraw.

Sgt. Sergio Sanesteban Pena, 29, said: “There are two aspects to it. As Westerners we entered an Arab country, not on a humanitarian mission as we were told, but an imperial mission in a very hostile environment. The result is as we see it today.

“On the other hand, speaking from a military point of view, we should have finished our job to help the Iraqi people.”

He echoed a commonly held opinion that the Spanish mission was undermined by the U.S. decision last month to arrest Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s deputy, a move that escalated violence in the Shi’ite region where Spanish troops operated.

When on patrol in Diwaniya in February, Sgt. Sanesteban was wounded in an arm and leg in a grenade attack. He will have more surgery next week.

But he says his sacrifice has been in vain.

“We had the ceremony and now our work is forgotten. But for us it will not be easy to forget,” he said.

“I would not want to exaggerate, but it is little like the American troops returning from Vietnam. There were no thanks. You came back and you could feel the indifference.”

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