Spanish leader makes bid to reshape the war on terror

Prime Minister Zapatero testifies Monday before the commission that is examining the March 11 terror attacks.

As José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero prepares to testify before the March 11 commission Monday, his goal appears to be nothing short of reshaping the struggle against terrorists - both at home and abroad.

In a series of statements beginning last week, Mr. Zapatero revealed his plan to use his country's recent antiterror agreement - a rare example of nonpartisan cooperation that has proved successful in combating domestic terrorism - as a model to lead both the European Union and the UN toward similar accords.

Sunday, Zapatero disclosed the most striking part of his proposal: to seek collaboration from Islamic countries, especially Morocco, to underscore the difference between Islam in general and a relatively small group of violent Islamist radicals.

But Zapatero's ambitions will be sorely tested. Internationally, his proposed course would further distance him from the Bush administration's efforts, although it may enhance his standing with his European neighbors, especially France and Germany.

In addition, his efforts to chart a new path for Spain may be severely hampered by the deep and bitter divisions within Spanish society that the hearings have exposed.

Although March 11 was a horrible tragedy for Spain, "what happened March 12 and 13 is what really changed the country," says Florentino Portero, an expert on terrorism and international security issues with the Strategic Studies Group. "Spain has never been so polarized, with two distinct political blocs that cannot communicate with each other."

In this atmosphere, Zapatero may find it difficult to consolidate the domestic cross-party support necessary for his bid to lead a broader European effort against terrorism. He has attempted to earn public ap-proval since taking office last spring by delivering on his pre-election promises, especially his vow to pull the country's troops out of Iraq.

A frayed national debate

Yet even though it draws on Spain's nonpartisan antiterrorist pact, Zapatero's latest proposal may still strain the already frayed debate over national security in the face of distinct terrorist threats.

"ETA [the Basque separatist group in Spain] and the Islamic terrorists are very different," says Mr. Portero. "One is ethnically based, local, and looks primarily to the past, while the other is religiously based, global, and is looking to the future. So Zapatero's initiative sounds good because it promises a combined fight against both ETA-style domestic terrorism and Islamist global violence."

By last week, the political mood in Madrid had soured further as the conservative Popular Party (PP) of José María Aznar, who was prime minister at the time of the attacks, openly asserted that March 11 had been planned to give the Socialists their victory. The Socialists angrily countered that the PP was trying to undermine the current administration.

On Saturday, PP leader Mariano Rajoy declared that when Zapatero appears at the hearings, the PP would focus on what Zapatero knew about the protests that took place in front of its headquarters on March 12 during the two-day "period of reflection" that all parties had agreed would precede the March 14 elections. Public opinion is split over whether the protests, which may have influenced the election, were spontaneous or orchestrated. Reflecting his party's view, Mr. Rajoy told the daily El País, "We will name the militants from his party that...organized the protests."

Though Zapatero is seeking to be seen as a man of action on the world stage, he thus far has not revealed a strategy to gain his opposition's trust and cooperation regarding Spain's pressing problems. During the past two weeks, for example, the PP has boycotted a parliamentary debate on constitutional reform legislation.

US-Europe divide

In addition to exposing the animosity between Spain's major political parties, the March 11 hearings have brought into focus the stark differences in worldview that have separated the United States and Europe since soon after Sept. 11, 2001.

Zapatero may be seeking to highlight that distinction; he has gained credibility as someone who has successfully led a cooperative antiterrorist effort at home.

And despite the belief of many that Zapatero's position in Europe is weak, permanently subordinate to France and Germany, the president has earned back much of the good will of Spain's neighbors that Aznar had lost.

Shrewd politics

Indeed, Zapatero's proposal, which addresses the threat of terrorism in both its homegrown and new international varieties, may turn out to be a shrewd political decision.

At home in Spain, his political opponents will find it increasingly difficult to stand against a popular plan that draws on a successful Spanish model that they themselves strongly supported.

And as the conflict in Iraq continues to rage, his ebullient multilateralism may also play well internationally.

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