Zapatero to pull out troops 'as soon as possible'

Spanish King Juan Carlos (centre) gestures beside the Prime Minister , Mr Jose Luis Rodrigues Zapatero (left) as Queen Sofia talks to new Spanish First Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega (right) after the Cabinet swearing-in ceremony.

Spanish King Juan Carlos (centre) gestures beside the Prime Minister , Mr Jose Luis Rodrigues Zapatero (left) as Queen Sofia talks to new Spanish First Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega (right) after the Cabinet swearing-in ceremony.

 

SPAIN: Spanish troops are to be withdrawn from Iraq "in the shortest possible time", Spain's new Prime Minister announced yesterday.

Mr José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was only sworn in to office on Saturday and his 16-member cabinet took their oaths yesterday, but he wasted little time in making his first major policy decision.

Mr Zapatero said he was keeping the promise he had given to Spaniards that he would bring the troops home unless they came under UN control before June 30th.

It now appears likely that the withdrawal will come before the June deadline.

Mr Zapatero said: "With the the information available and which we have gathered in recent weeks, it is increasingly unlikely that a UN resolution can be approved" by that date.

"I have ordered that they should come home in the shortest possible time and with maximum security."

Standing beside Mr Zapatero in the Moncloa Palace were his First Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, and the new Defence Minister , Mr José Bono.

Mr Zapatero told the nation: "This decision is in line with my promise to the Spanish people in March 2003", during the massive anti-war demonstrations. He reminded them that he had repeated this promise in February during the election campaign, and again at the end of last week during the investiture debate in the parliament.

He reassured Spain's allies that the withdrawal of the troops in no way signalled a change of policy in the war against terrorism. "It is our intention to continue with our contribution to the battle against international terrorism within the framework international legality. . . My government will remain a loyal ally to our international partners," he said.

The former prime minister, Mr José Maria Aznar, took the decision to join the Bush-Blair alliance in Iraq and ordered that Spain should send troops to co-operate with the coalition forces. His highly unpopular decision was almost certainly one of the reasons his Popular Party was voted out in the March 14th general elections, although the PP's attempt to manipulate information in the wake of the March 11th train bomb massacre also played an important part.

There are currently 1,300 troops based in southern Iraq near Diwaniya and Najaf, where they have been under almost continual night-time fire for the past week, although they have suffered only minor casualties. However, four members of an intelligence unit were killed in an attack near Baghdad at the end of last year.

Mr Zapatero is believed to have informed Mr Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for foreign policy and security and himself a former Socialist foreign minister, of his decision on Saturday during Mr Solana's visit to Madrid. At the same time it was announced that Mr Miguel Angel Moratinos, the new Foreign Minister and the former EU representative in the Middle East, would be visiting Dublin tomorrow before flying to Washington for talks with Mr Colin Powell and Dr Condoleeza Rice.