Spanish Election Blow To
Bush's War On Terror

By Isambard Wilkinson
The Telegraph - UK

MADRID -- Spain's socialists defeated the conservative government in the general election last night, delivering a serious blow to the American-led war on terror.
The government was swept from power amid public disenchantment with its policy on Iraq and its conduct following the Madrid train bombings, in which 200 people were killed and 1,400 injured. It persisted in blaming the Basque extremist group Eta.
Now there are growing indications that al-Qa'eda bombers carried out the Madrid massacre in an attempt to influence the election result.
The government conceded defeat as the Socialist Workers' Party and its radical allies easily won a majority of seats in the 350-member Cortes.
With 99.4 per cent of the votes counted, the Socialists led the ruling People's Party by 42.6 per cent to 37.7 per cent. This would give them 164 seats to 148 for the PP. Turnout was 77 per cent.
Prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's party had been well ahead in opinion polls.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Socialist leader, said: "My most immediate priority is to beat all forms of terrorism," after asking for a minute's silence for the victims.
The Socialists have promised to withdraw 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq.
That would break the unity of the coalition policing Iraq and would be portrayed in the Arab world as a victory for al-Qa'eda.
Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, one of the leading Socialist Party figures, told the Telegraph yesterday that it would put withdrawal from Iraq at the top of its agenda.
"One of the first decisions will be to bring the troops back home," he said. "We have said that we would pull them out by June 30.
"We have always believed it has not been a legitimate occupation of a foreign land and has no constitutional basis."
Mr Lopez Aguilar denied that this could be seen as a victory for the terrorists. "It is not intended to send any message to al-Qa'eda. It is a political commitment," he said.
Evidence of Islamist involvement has grown steadily. Yesterday's El Pais reported that an Arabic document found on the internet suggested that al-Qa'eda was planning an attack before the elections.
Spain was identified as "a weak link" in the US-led coalition in Iraq as the document noted that a majority of Spaniards was against the war.
"For the maximum effect" it suggested an attack just before the elections. "Spain could not tolerate more than two or three attacks without having to withdraw its troops from Iraq."
A video statement claiming to be from al-Qa'eda which was broadcast on the eve of the election appeared designed as an appeal to Spanish voters.
It described the Madrid massacre as "a response for your collaboration with the criminals Bush and his allies".
Demanding an end to "crimes" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the speaker issued an appeal to Spaniards to change their ways. He warned: "If you don't stop your injustices there will be more."
Al-Qa'eda has previously sought to cause the maximum injury to civilians and has rarely made short-term political demands. Knocking out a prominent member of the Iraq peacekeeping force might have proved a tempting target.
Along with Britain, Jose Maria Aznar's Spanish government became one of the Bush administration's staunchest allies in the war on terror despite massive domestic opposition.
About 90 per cent of Spaniards opposed Mr Aznar's support for the war in Iraq and the deployment of Spanish soldiers. Huge demonstrations against the war were held in Madrid and other cities.
"It will be a great victory for the terrorists if they manage to be perceived as having influenced the elections," said Charles Powell, an Anglo-Spanish political analyst and former Aznar aide. "From their point of view it looks as if they saw Spain as the weakest link in the coalition against terror."
A day after the arrest of three Moroccans and two Indians who were traced to mobile phones used by the bombers, newspapers and television urged voters to go out and vote.
The unprecedented circumstances of the election were highlighted by television images showing a wounded survivor of the bombings, Cayetano Abad, being carried from hospital to a polling booth to cast his vote. But there were also angry scenes as Mr Aznar and Mariano Rajoy, his successor as party leader, went to vote.
Protesters shouted "Manipulator" and "You fascists are the terrorists". Others yelled "Liar" and "Get our troops out of Iraq".
Mr Aznar, who is stepping down after two terms in office, told the crowd: "Whoever they are, wherever they come from, we will not let terrorists and fanatics cow Spanish society, divide it or destroy its freedom."
Yesterday, more than 100,000 police officers were on the streets to ensure the safety of the 35 million voters and the 24,000 polling booths.
But the political climate had turned extremely sour, with both main parties accusing the other of undermining Spain's fledgling democracy.
The Socialists accused the government of trying to influence the outcome of the elections by withholding information on the identity of the Madrid train attackers.
The PP countered that the Socialists had stirred up a fragile elections eve by organising a demonstration outside PP headquarters which had ended in violence.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.



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