Spanish Victor Says Iraq War Based on 'Lies'

Special to The Times

Spain's new leader promised Monday to withdraw his nation's 1,300 troops from Iraq and called the war "an error" based on "lies." But the Bush administration sought to contain the political damage from the weekend's upset victory by Spain's Socialist Party, stressing that the two nations shared the goal of defeating terrorism.

In a move that would fracture the coalition of 35 nations with troops in Iraq, incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he would withdraw Spanish troops in Iraq by June 30 unless they were serving under a new United Nations mandate.

Although U.S. officials played down the significance of Zapatero's threat, independent analysts called the electoral defeat of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party a disaster for the Bush administration.

The blow to Aznar, the second-most important U.S. ally on Iraq after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, threatens to undermine other world leaders who cooperate with the United States over the objections of their public, the said. "This is the third big ally which has had an election in which those who ran against Bush's foreign policy won: Germany in 2002, South Korea in 2003 and now Spain in 2004," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"If there is a message here for political leaders, it is, 'Don't go and visit Crawford,' " he added, referring to Bush's Texas hometown.

Aznar's surprise defeat followed bombings that killed at least 200 and injured 1,500 in Madrid on Thursday.

The government initially blamed the attacks on Basque separatists, but on the eve of the election, a previously unknown Al Qaeda figure claimed responsibility for the bombings, saying they were intended to punish Spain for its cooperation with the United States in the war in Iraq, which up to 90% of Spaniards opposed, polls showed.

The electoral results risk sending the inadvertent message that terrorists can succeed in unseating governments they dislike, said Philip H. Gordon, a former National Security Council European specialist.

"Clearly, this was a bad result in every possible way," Gordon said. "It took away a staunch conservative ally in Europe, it undermines the notion that we have a coalition, and it sends a message that governments can win by distancing themselves from the United States."

The Bush administration now needs to "try to avoid a scenario in which bashing the U.S. becomes the way governments in Europe get elected," Gordon said. Aznar had governed Spain for the last eight years and was not running for reelection, but had designated a successor.

Meanwhile, leaders of nations who are assisting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, including Britain, Italy and Poland, will "have to see this as a warning," Gordon said. "Their private communications to the U.S. will be, 'Don't ask too much of us, because we don't want to suffer the same fate as Aznar.' "

One State Department official said Washington was worried that the perception that the Spanish government had fallen because of its Iraq policy could affect other nations -- and that American friendship could endanger its allies.

The official said friendly Arab nations in particular had pleaded with the United States for months, "Don't commend us too highly, because right now too tight an embrace of us coming from the U.S. can hurt us."

On Monday, U.S. officials reached out to the incoming Spanish leadership and downplayed stinging criticism emanating from Madrid.

After placing a condolence call to Aznar, President Bush called Zapatero on Monday to congratulate him. The two leaders pledged to work together on countering terrorism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. In the 10-minute conversation, Bush and Zapatero did not discuss the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, McClellan said.

One U.S. official noted that the United States and Spain had had a long and stable relationship no matter which political party was in power in Madrid. "They've been good strong members of NATO for a long time," he said. "This isn't a relationship where we go from one extreme to another."

The official said Washington's goal was to "engage with them meaningfully" to try to minimize any abrupt change in course.

But the 40-year-old Zapatero, a lawyer who in 18 years in parliament had earned a reputation as a politician who tried not to offend, made clear that he intended to steer Spain out of the American orbit and back toward European countries, including France and Germany, that opposed the Iraq war.

"Spain is going to be more pro-Europe than ever," promised Zapatero, who is expected to assume his post within weeks.

He lashed out at Bush and Blair, saying they needed "to engage in some self-criticism" over their conduct of the war. "You can't bombard a people just in case they pose a perceived threat," Zapatero said, referring to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "You can't organize a war on the basis of lies."

Wars like the one in Iraq "only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate," he added.

The State Department, asked for comment on the remarks, tried to defuse an incipient spat. "This is this first day of a new administration, let's let them get into place, let's let them put their team together," a senior official said. "There's a difference between campaigning and governing.... So let's see what happens."

Although Zapatero said he doubted that a new United Nations mandate for coalition troops in Iraq could be put together in time to forestall a Spanish troop withdrawal on June 30, the State Department official said that remains to be seen.

"Maybe there will be a mandate, and maybe they'll decide to stay," the official said. "If they decide to withdraw the troops ... it's not the end of the world.... It's not going to mean the collapse of the coalition, and it's not going to mean the collapse of Iraq."

The Bush administration has insisted that it does not need a new United Nations resolution to legitimize coalition military operations in Iraq because previous resolutions have authorized the occupation authority.

But Washington fully expects there to be a resolution recognizing the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty to a new Iraqi transitional government. No wording has been drafted because the makeup of the transitional government has yet to be decided, the official said.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Spanish ambassador to the U.N. had to draft an embarrassing retraction for his government Monday to correct a Security Council resolution that was adopted at Spain's insistence last week. That resolution blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for the Madrid bombings, despite strong reservations by other Europeans who thought the evidence pointing to ETA was insufficient.

Spanish Ambassador Inocencio Arias sent a letter to the Security Council to clarify that "new elements had been discovered" that pointed to foreign attackers and promising to inform the council when the Spanish investigation was complete.

The Security Council almost always avoids naming suspects in such resolutions -- and did not even condemn Al Qaeda for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. However, within hours of last week's train bombings, the Spanish government sent all of its ambassadors instructions to approach the media and blame ETA, according to diplomatic sources from two countries.

Other diplomats reluctantly agreed to Spain's demands, because "when you have an ally who has suffered from a terrorist attack, you don't bargain," one said. "But the next day, we felt really stupid," another Security Council diplomat said.

In Europe, many argued that the Aznar government's initial decision to discount the possible involvement of Al Qaeda played a large role in his party's defeat.

Some officials argued that it was the mismanagement of the crisis, not Aznar's support of the war in Iraq, that turned the public against his Popular Party.

Official turnout in the election was 77%, but one European diplomat said voters in the Basque regions turned out especially heavily to protest what they saw as the government's attempt to blame ETA without evidence.

On Monday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw attempted to counter the widespread conclusion that Spain was targeted because of its support for the Iraq war.

"No one should get the idea that somehow if you were a country which was opposed to the military action in Iraq, you are less of a target for Al Qaeda and these terrible Islamic fanatics," Straw said.

"Nobody, nobody should believe that somehow we can opt out of the war against Islamic terrorism," he said.

Two minor members of the military coalition in Iraq, El Salvador and Honduras, stepped up security measures against the possibility of attacks but promised not to curtail their operations.

Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller issued a similar pledge, saying that to withdraw his country's 2,500 troops in Iraq "would be admitting that it is terrorists who are right and are stronger than the entire civilized world which is fighting them."

However, several Polish opposition parties, noting that 70% of their public opposed the war, sent a letter to the government asking that the troops be withdrawn -- a demand almost certain to be rejected.

Some European diplomats acknowledged that public opposition to military participation in Iraq could become an issue in elections across the continent. But they predicted that the issue would fade once the U.N. began to play a more prominent role in Iraq after June 30.

So it remained unclear Monday how the Madrid attacks would affect the broader political climate in Europe.

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Staff writer Efron reported from Washington and special correspondent Wallace from Madrid. Staff writers Maggie Farley in New York, Paul Richter and Ken Silverstein in Washington, and researchers Janet Stobart in London and Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw also contributed to this report.

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