Spain's prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero vowed to withdraw troops from Iraq and criticized US President George W. Bush after Spanish voters ousted governing conservatives who took the country into the controversial war.
"The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster," Zapatero, 43, told Cadena Ser radio on Monday.
He spoke just before the European Union held three minutes' silence in tribute to the 200 people killed in last Thursday's bombings of crowded Madrid commuter trains.
'THE WAR IN IRAQ WAS A DISASTER, THE OCCUPATION OF IRAQ IS A DISASTER'
Spanish prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (pictured) said George W. Bush and Tony Blair 'need to engage in some self-criticism' on their decision to launch a war against Iraq. (AFP/Christophe Simon)
An ongoing investigation into the attacks has found growing evidence they were carried out by Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda as punishment for Spain's help in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Voters turned out in force for Sunday's elections. Many of them expressed anger at retiring Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar when he cast his ballot, jostling and booing him while some shouted "Aznar: your war, our dead."
Zapatero, whose Socialist Party ended eight years of rule by Aznar's Popular Party (PP) after winning 43 percent of the ballots to the PP's 38 percent, said near-total public opposition to the Iraq war had been key.
He said that barring new developments in Iraq before June 30 -- the date the United States has promised to hand power over to an Iraqi provisional government -- Spain's 1,300 troops in Iraq "will return home" as he had promised before the elections.
The other occupying states will be contacted for consultations on withdrawing the soldiers, he said.
Zapatero also said Bush and his main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, need to engage in "self-criticism".
"You can't bomb a people just in case" they pose a perceived threat, Zapatero said in statements just five days before the first anniversary of the March 20 start of the war.
"You can't organize a war on the basis of lies," he said, alluding to Bush's and Blair's insistence the war was justified by their belief -- so far unfounded -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat.
"Wars such as that which has occurred in Iraq only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate," he said.
The head of the EU executive arm, European Commission chief Romano Prodi, agreed in an interview published by Italy's La Stampa newspaper Monday.
"It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists," Prodi said. "Terrorism is infinitely more powerful than a year ago," and all of Europe now feels threatened, he told the paper.
The loss of the United States' and Britain's main ally has left Bush especially looking exposed as he faces the November presidential election.
While Zapatero fielded congratulations from French President Jacques Chirac, South African President Thabo Mbeki and other world leaders, Bush had yet to make a call.
Other US allies in Iraq, among them Poland and Denmark, were notably cool towards his win.
Polish foreign ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski said: "Our general position is that everybody there (in Iraq) should stay until the situation is stabilized."
Spain's contingent is the sixth-largest in Iraq. It has suffered 11 deaths, including seven intelligence agents ambushed in November.
The investigation into the Madrid blasts suggested Al-Qaeda may have made good on a threat issued October 18 by Osama bin Laden that Spain, Australia, Britain, Italy and other US allies would be targeted for attacks.
Spanish authorities were working to authenticate a video found in a Madrid rubbish bin late Saturday in which a man claiming to be Al-Qaeda's spokesman in Europe said the Islamic radical network was responsible.
"We claim responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks in New York and Washington," said the man, speaking Arabic with a Moroccan accent.
"This is an answer to your cooperation with the Bush criminals and their allies," he said, threatening more attacks.
Five suspects -- three Moroccans and two Indians -- were being held in connection to the bombings. One of the Moroccans figured on a list of suspected members of an Al-Qaeda cell in Spain.
Stock markets in Europe fell back on the specter of Al-Qaeda involvement, and the dollar slipped.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw played down any negative consequences of Sunday's elections, insisting that his and Blair's center-left government "look forward to doing business with them."
And he dismissed the suggestion that Spain, or any other nation, could become immune from terrorist attacks by opposing the Iraq war.
"Nobody, nobody, nobody should believe that somehow we can opt out of the war against Islamic terrorism," he said. "The idea that, somehow, there is some exemption certificate for this war against terrorism is utter nonsense."
France has proposed an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers to coordinate Europe's response to terrorism, while Germany has suggested a meeting of EU interior ministers, security and police chiefs was necessary to draft a "common assessment" amid increasing indications the attacks were the work of Islamic extremists.
© Copyright 2004 AFP