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The Spanish move to shift resources to another front in the War on Terror comes as terrorists struck Sunday night and Monday in Uzbekistan, another U.S. ally in the terror fight.
Spain’s incoming Socialist government rode a wave of terror fears and anti-Americanism to victory two weeks ago, just days after 190 people died in bombings on Madrid commuter trains. The newly-elected government quickly announced it would withdraw its troops from Iraq — a decision supported by 72 percent of Spaniards, according to a poll released Monday.
But Madrid has agreed to double its military presence in Afghanistan to 250 soldiers this summer, an aide to the future defense minister said Monday.
Outgoing Defense Minister Federico Trillo made the decision on the Afghanistan troops last week in consultation with his Socialist replacement, Jose Bono, according to Bono spokesman Jose Luis Fernandez.
The idea was widely interpreted as a bid to deflect criticism from the United States and other countries of the Socialists’ plans to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge there.
“After March 11, the European public in general and Spanish public in particular are still not really aware that we are fighting an asymmetrical, but very real war,” outgoing Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said in reference to the Madrid attacks.
Speaking at a small meeting held by the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative on Monday, Palacio continued, “We have to make Europeans aware that they cannot build this safe haven from terrorism.”
Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero campaigned on a pledge to remove those soldiers from Iraq and has reiterated the promise since his upset election victory over Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s party.
Aznar was accused of provoking the March 11 terror attack in Madrid by backing the war in Iraq.
Zapatero has called both the Iraq war and the occupation illegal because they lacked a U.N. mandate.
His party believes Afghanistan is different because the occupation is sanctioned by the United Nations and the troops overseeing the country’s reconstruction after the U.S. attacks that toppled the Taliban in 2002 are under NATO command.
Chris Henderson, spokesman for the 6,500 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, welcomed the news. NATO is expanding its presence in Afghanistan beyond the capital Kabul, but member countries have been slow to commit more troops.
“It’s going to be critical we get additional resources, additional troops,” Henderson said.
Trillo and Bono met informally Tuesday to discuss the outgoing government’s plans for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a rotation of the troops in Iraq that was to be completed next month. Bono said he did not object to that either, Fernandez said.
Spanish radio station Cadena Ser said 160 troops due to travel from Zaragoza in northeast Spain to Iraq on Monday to start that rotation had been ordered to stay put, however. Cadena Ser and the news agency Efe quoted military officials as saying the delay was due to technical problems.
Zapatero’s campaign manager Jose Blanco said Monday that plans to withdraw troops from Iraq unless the postwar occupation gets a U.N. mandate to remain in place.
“Since nothing has changed, the objective reasons continue the same,” Blanco told Spanish National Radio. “Therefore, the Socialist party maintains its commitment to withdraw the troops by June 30.” That is the date their mandate from the Spanish government expires.
A Cadena Ser survey released Monday showed 72 percent of Spaniards support Zapatero’s plans. Fifteen percent of 1,000 people interviewed by the Instituto Opina polling firm for the radio network said they opposed the decision while 13 percent were undecided. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, attending last week’s state funeral for the victims of the March 11 bombings, met briefly with Zapatero and offered immediate talks on crafting a U.N. role in Iraq that would meet Spain’s concerns.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said Spain would appear to be appeasing terrorists if it withdraws its troops from Iraq.
Calling herself a friend of America, Palacio spoke frankly about the different ways of viewing the world in Europe and America.
“You look into the future. We have the weight of our past. You are perceived in Europe as pure strength, and we think of ourselves as the righteous ones.”
But, she added hopefully, “The events of March 11 may have at last alerted the Europeans.”
In a videotape found after the rail bombings, an Arabic-speaking man said Al Qaeda carried them out to punish Spain’s conservative government for backing the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Fox News’ Peter Brownfeld and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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