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US, Spanish officials spar on Iraq, terrorism

Zapatero reaffirms plan to remove troops unless UN takes over

WASHINGTON -- US and Spanish officials traded barbs yesterday, rekindling a trans-Atlantic disagreement over the invasion of Iraq and the best way to fight terrorism.

Top Republicans accused the Spaniards of appeasing terrorist groups by turning out of office the party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close US ally. Spain's prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in turn, said the Iraq occupation "is turning into a fiasco."

Rodriguez Zapatero has made clear he prefers Democratic challenger John F. Kerry over President Bush in the White House. He said yesterday he will stick by his decision to pull 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq unless the United Nations takes control of peacekeeping.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said Spain was "a nation that succumbed . . . to threats of terrorism, changed their government."

"Here's a country that stood against terrorism and had a huge terrorist act within their country, and they chose to change their government and to, in a sense, appease terrorists," Hastert said.

Added GOP US Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee: "The vote in Spain was a great victory for Al Qaeda."

House majority leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, expressed his condolences to the people of Spain, particularly to the victims of last week's deadly railway bombings. But DeLay said he hoped Rodriguez Zapatero will come to believe in the US position -- "that Iraq is central to winning" the fight against terrorism. "If we follow the example of the new Spanish government and we accept failure in Iraq and permit the victory of the terrorists there, there will be no counting the number of people around the world who will suffer the consequences," he said.

The lawmakers' comments were harsher than those coming from the White House in recent days.

When Bush was asked Tuesday whether the Spanish vote gave terrorists reason to believe that they can influence elections and policy, he replied: "I think terrorists will kill innocent life in order to try to get the world to cower. I think these are cold-blooded killers."

Rodriguez Zapatero was asked how he might respond if Bush asked him to reconsider pulling Spanish troops from Iraq. "I will listen to Mr. Bush, but my position is very firm and very clear," he said.

"Combating terrorism with bombs, with operations of shock and awe, with Tomahawk missiles, is not the way to beat terrorism. . . . It is a way of generating more radicalism, more people who can wind up being tempted by using violence," Rodriguez Zapatero told Onda Cero radio.

During his campaign, Rodriguez Zapatero said he hoped Kerry would beat Bush in the November elections, "and the spirit of the Azores" islands -- where Bush, Aznar, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met before the Iraq war -- "will begin to be a bad memory."

The International Herald Tribune recently quoted him as saying, "We're aligning ourselves with Kerry. Our allegiance will be for peace, against war, no more deaths for oil, and for a dialogue between the government of Spain and the new Kerry administration."

In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Rodriguez Zapatero aide Julian Lacalle said, "Zapatero says the three [men] of the Azores are going to lose . . . He wants Kerry to win the elections in the United States."

Kerry, however, said Tuesday, "In my judgment the new prime minister should not have said he was going to pull out of Iraq."

Rodriguez Zapatero is not alone in Europe in his criticism of the US-led campaign in Iraq, undertaken by the Bush administration despite international opposition and seen by many as a detour from the real fight against terrorism.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he thought the Spanish vote "was a protest by the people against the handling of the terrorist event by the sitting government of Spain."

"Probably part of it" was that the defeated Aznar's conservative government initially held Basque separatists accountable and "didn't get what information did exist out to the public," Armitage said in an interview on Philadelphia radio station WPHT.

After initially pointing the finger at Basque separatists, the Spanish government has since said it is investigating a top suspect's possible links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

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