Socialist Spain a blow to US

Incoming Prime Minister Zapatero has signaled he will pull Spanish troops from Iraq.

Just when it seemed that European nations had made their peace with Washington and among themselves over Western policy in Iraq, the Socialist Party's upset victory in Spain's general elections Sunday has thrown many diplomatic assumptions into doubt.

The defeat of Prime Minister José María Aznar's Popular Party, a strong supporter of US policy in the Middle East, is a blow to America's hopes of rallying Europe behind its vision for the region. It is likely to pose problems, too, for US allies on the Continent such as British leader Tony Blair and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who are expected to come under renewed pressure from skeptical electorates.

"This changes all the equilibriums in Europe," says Sergio Romano, an influential Italian commentator on foreign affairs. "Spain is no longer America's main partner on the European mainland. It is definitely bad news for pro-American governments in Europe, and for sectors of the left that have tried to hold radical pacifists at bay."

Incoming Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero quickly reassured voters and foreign governments that his country would remain a firm combatant in the war on terrorism, following last week's deadly train bombing in Madrid. "My most immediate priority is to fight all forms of terrorism," he told supporters Sunday night.

The election results, punishing Mr. Aznar for his perceived manipulation of the bombing investigation, and rewarding Mr. Zapatero's outspoken opposition to US policy, "will strengthen those forces in Europe that have questioned US strategy toward the greater Middle East," says Steven Everts, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform in London. "It will shift the balance."

Across the Continent Monday, Europeans observed three minutes of silence to remember the 200 victims of Thursday's bomb attacks. In Brussels, European Union officials held a vigil, while in Germany, thousands of auto workers put down their tools. Passengers at London's Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, stood quietly as all takeoffs were halted. In Paris cafes, patrons fell silent as sirens wailed and church bells rang.

A call to take stock

Miguel Angel Moratinos, widely tipped to be Spain's new foreign minister, did not mince words Monday as he set out the incoming government's position to France Inter, a French radio station.

"We need some self-criticism" over Iraq policy, he stated in an interview. "European leaders and international leaders should meet immediately to take stock, to be clear about the consequences of this blind policy that is leading the Middle East and the West into a dead end. It has to be changed."

Zapatero told the Cadena Ser radio station Monday that he would withdraw Spanish troops serving in Iraq by June 30th. "The Spanish troops will come back," he said. "Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush must do some reflection ... you cannot organize a war with lies."

Mr. Moratinos nuanced that stance, repeating the Socialists' campaign pledge that the troops would withdraw if there were no new United Nations mandate authorizing their presence. Spain is due to take over command of 9,000 troops in central Iraq on July 1st.

A troop withdrawal in the wake of the train attacks, now believed to be the work of Al Qaeda, would risk drawing accusations that Spain was appeasing terrorists. A videotaped statement purporting to be from Al Qaeda and claiming responsibility for the bombings said it was "a response for your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies. This is how to respond to the crimes you have caused in the world and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Polish Prime Minister Lezsek Miller, who has sent 2,400 soldiers to Iraq, told reporters Monday that he would keep them there.

"Revising our position on Iraq after terrorist attacks would be to admit that terrorists are stronger and that they are right" to continue such attacks, he said.

Spanish Socialists, however, angrily reject such charges.

"No one can ever negotiate with terrorists, and pulling the troops out cannot be seen in terms of any kind of negotiation" says Salvador Clotas, a Socialist Party eminence grise. "It is the fulfillment of an electoral promise made independently of this terrible tragedy. The Socialist Party was always against the war."

Zapatero "will have to be really careful" in his handling of the question, suggests Mr. Everts. "Saying you want a greater UN role is not giving in to Al Qaeda, but he will have to make that argument in a delicate and specific manner."

The new government, adds Dr. Romano, "will definitely try to avoid a crisis with America, but some kind of softer disengagement" from Spain's close alliance with Washington "will probably take place."

That, says Jose Ramon Montero, a politics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, means that Zapatero "will return to Europe ... and take a similar position to France and Germany, leaving Blair and a few exceptions like Berlusconi on their own."

Changed mood across Europe

That shifting balance of power, says Everts, "means the question of Western troops in Iraq will have to be rethought, and the conditions attached to any NATO role will be looked at more carefully. The United Nations will have to be much more front and center. The elections were only in Spain, but they signify a change of mood" across Europe.

On other issues, too, the new Socialist government is likely to realign Madrid with the nations US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed last year as "old Europe," Spanish analysts say.

"Aznar has played a confrontational role with France and Germany," says Professor Montero, alienating the two countries at the heart of the European Union by torpedoing a European constitution over Spain's voting rights in a reformed EU, among other things. "Zapatero will play a more prominent role ... with new initiatives on the table to look for a consensus."

Lisa Abend and Geoff Pingree contributed to this report from Madrid.

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