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Socialist PM pledges troop pullout from Iraq

By Peter Fray, Herald Correspondent in Madrid
March 16, 2004

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Winning smile . . . the Socialist leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, waves to supporters in front of the party headquarters after his stunning election victory. Photo: AFP/Pedro Armestre

Spain's conservative party has been swept from power after eight years, on a wave of anger and resentment against its handling of Madrid's al-Qaeda linked train bombings and support for the US war in Iraq.

The country's 34.5 million voters turned against the conservatives in the aftermath of Thursday's terrorist assault, which authorities believe was carried out by an al-Qaeda cell, known as Abu Dahdah, which has links to the September 11 attacks in New York.

The incoming socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was narrowly trailing in opinion polls until the bombings, which left 200 commuters dead and more than 1400 injured.

But the conservatives' handling of the crisis and claims they were covering up al-Qaeda's involvement brought millions of young Spaniards out to vote, many for the first time. The turnout was put at 77.4 per cent, the highest in more than 20 years.

Mr Zapatero, whose party won almost 43 per cent of vote, has promised to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq in June, in effect ending the country's close collaboration with the US and Britain in the war and occupation.



Mr Zapatero used his acceptance speech to call for a "united front" against terrorism.

In his first post-election interview, he said he intended to withdraw Spain's 1300 troops. No decision would be taken until he was in power and without wide political consultation, he said, "but the Spanish troops in Iraq will come home".

Investigators are hunting a multinational terrorist cell of Moroccans and Saudis who carried out the bombing to purportedly punish Spain for its role in Iraq and the fight against international terrorism.

The 10-bomb attack represents the first time al-Qaeda has struck in Europe and has prompted a security upgrade of transport networks across the continent.

Two of the three Moroccan men arrested by Spanish authorities over the bombing have been linked to September 11 atrocities. Jamal Zougam, 30, had been listed as an al-Qaeda cell member in a Spanish indictment against Osama bin Laden and others for the attack by the anti-terrorist judge Baltasar Garzon. Mohamed Chaoui, 34, has also been linked to a Spanish cell that helped plan the New York attack.

Spanish authorities are looking for four other men linked to the Madrid bombing and, for the first time, it has been revealed that one of the bombers may have died in the explosions, which ripped apart four rush hour trains.

Forensic experts suspect a spinal column in the wreckage could be from one of the terrorists, who was possibly acting as a suicide bomber.

The conservative Popular Party under Jose Maria Aznar and his chosen successor, Mariano Rajoy, had been tipped to win the election on the strength of the Government's healthy economic record and its popular crackdown of the Basque separatist group ETA, despite overwhelming opposition to its role in Iraq.

Victory celebrations were tempered by the grief and shock over the bombings.


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