Spain's new Socialist government slammed the U.S.-led war in Iraq yesterday and threatened to pull 1,300 troops out of the occupation forces, the first major wartime ally to bolt from Washington's "coalition of the willing."
"Unless there is a change in that the United Nations takes control and the occupiers give up political control, the Spanish troops will come back, and the limit for their presence there is June 30," said incoming prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a day after his party's surprise election victory in the wake of last week's deadly train bombings around Madrid.
But Mr. Zapatero left his new government plenty of wiggle room on the pullout. Political control and sovereignty for Iraq are due to be transferred to the Baghdad transitional government on June 30, formally ending the occupation, and a new legal framework for the 150,000 foreign troops in the country will be required.
That could take the form of a UN Security Council resolution creating a peacekeeping mission, or a series of bilateral agreements among the transitional government and the United States and other troop-contributing countries.
Nevertheless, the symbolic damage to Washington was significant, and President George W. Bush's administration tried to put the best possible face on the Spanish threat.
"It's not a question of people jumping ship on Iraq, it's a question of deciding how best to contribute to stability in that vital part of the world," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. But he also signalled Washington's renewed willingness to consider a UN Security Council resolution to confer legitimacy on foreign forces in Iraq after the handover. "In the context of a transfer of sovereignty on June 30, a new resolution is possible," Mr. Ereli said.
It was a year ago, almost to the day, that Mr. Zapatero's conservative predecessor Jose Maria Aznar huddled with Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Azores for a final prewar summit.
Madrid's military role proved to be relatively modest. Spanish forces currently provide the lead contingent in a multinational brigade that occupies two fairly quiet provinces southeast of Baghdad. But Mr. Aznar's backing, in the face of widespread Spanish public opposition, provided a huge boost for Mr. Bush, who was struggling for Western European support at the time in the face of hostile rejection from France and Germany.
Mr. Bush called both Spaniards yesterday, and told Mr. Zapatero he looked forward to working together, "particularly on our shared commitment to combatting terrorism," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Mr. Zapatero promised to keep Spanish relations with the United States "cordial," but he minced no words in his assessment of the Iraq conflict.
"The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster," he said, suggesting that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair should engage in "some self-criticism."
"Wars such as those that have occurred in Iraq only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate," he added.
Mr. Zapatero gave no hint that he would review Spain's promise to provide troops to the expanding Canadian-led peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. But his government did pledge to restore close relations with France and Germany and make its foreign policy more Eurocentric, a sharp departure from Mr. Aznar's government.
Britain and Poland, which have contributed more troops than any other European countries, remain committed to the Iraqi occupation. Britain has 15,000 troops there and remains Washington's staunchest ally. And Poland, with 2,400 troops, commands a 9,000-strong multinational division that includes the Spanish forces.
"Revising our positions on Iraq after terrorist attacks would be to admit that terrorists are stronger and that they are right," Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller warned yesterday.