Spain's New Tack In The War On Terror

The new Spanish Prime Minister didn't waste any time. Just one day after 43-year-old José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was sworn into office on Apr. 17, he announced that he would withdraw Spain's contingent of 1,300 troops from Iraq "as soon as possible." The decision fulfills a campaign promise that helped the Socialist Party leader win a surprise victory on Mar. 14, three days after horrific terrorist bombings in Madrid killed 191 people.

But Zapatero's move stands to embitter relations with the Bush Administration, which had grown accustomed to the fiercely pro-U.S. policy of Zapatero's conservative predecessor, José María Aznar. And it underscores the difficulties that the incoming government in Madrid may face in forging an effective anti-terrorism policy -- a top priority for Zapatero. Many observers thought a way could be found for the Spanish units to stay in place during the transition to Iraqi self-rule if the U.N. starts playing a larger role. Madrid sources say Zapatero and his aides discussed, but then rejected, postponing the withdrawal. The speedy pullout "may be sending the wrong signal to the wrong people in Iraq," says Bernhard May, director of U.S.-European relations at Berlin's DGAP Institute. After Zapatero's decision, radical Iraqi Shiites said they were no longer targeting Spanish soldiers.

Zapatero remains concerned about terrorism at home. His challenge will be to refocus Spain's intelligence and counterintelligence efforts on radical Islamist cells. Under Aznar, Madrid waged a relentless battle against the armed Basque separatist group ETA. The organization, which nearly succeeded in assassinating Aznar in 1995, has been penetrated by counterintelligence operatives and is now a shadow of its former murderous self. Yet Spain's capacity to deal with Islamic terrorism has been limited. Fewer than 10% of Spain's roughly 1,000 specialized anti-terrorism forces focus on Islamist groups. In a move recalling Bush's Homeland Security efforts, Zapatero plans to create a new post to coordinate terrorism investigations among Spain's fractious security services.

RETURN TO ITS ROOTS. Zapatero and Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos -- the European Union's envoy to the Mideast peace process since 1996 -- want to combine tougher anti-terrorist policies at home with moves to share intelligence within the EU and improve relations with North African and Mideastern states. This would mark a return to Spain's traditional pro-Arab foreign policy tilt, all but abandoned by Aznar. The new government is likely to spearhead EU initiatives to expand aid in the depressed southern rim of the Mediterranean. Bolstering stability in Morocco, home of most of the suspected Mar. 11 bombers, will be a priority. "Having rejected military action as a way to combat terrorism, the new government must focus on cooperation, cooperation, cooperation," says Jesús A. Núñez, director of Madrid-based think tank Institute of Studies on Conflicts & Humanitarian Action.

The real test for Zapatero will come if the terrorists succeed in any other attacks. That could put a brake on his high-flying political career, as well as challenge the assumptions of his carrot-and-stick policy for fighting terrorism. That's a gamble this inexperienced Prime Minister seems willing to take -- at least for now.

By John Rossant in Paris and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck in Madrid

Edited by Rose Brady

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