Spain Rocked by Iraq Ambush
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Spain and Europe are once again in mourning after another bloody attack on European troops stationed in Iraq. In the latest incident, seven Spanish intelligence officers were brutally killed in an ambush near the Iraqi town of Hilla. The attack occurred a few hours before Japan suffered its first fatalities in the war-ravaged country. These latest tragedies will increase the political pressure on the Japanese and Spanish prime ministers. The killings are also likely to delay the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq.
Spanish reaction to the attack has been intense with newspapers and TV channels giving extensive coverage to the horrific incident. TV stations have repeatedly shown shocking footage of the terrible aftermath from the deadly ambush. All of Spain's mainstream newspapers carry front-page pictures of a jubilant Iraqi crowd cheering at the charred remains of the fallen Spanish troops.
Polls taken after the attack clearly indicate that the overwhelming majority of Spaniards want their soldiers to return home as soon as possible. News interviews with the public reinforce this message as people express practically no support for troops remaining in Iraq. Before the attack opinion polls showed that more than 90% of Spaniards opposed the Iraq war.
Despite not committing any troops to the main combat phase of the war, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been one of President George W. Bush's staunches supporters. In the face of fierce public opposition, he dispatched some 1,300 troops to Iraq for postwar reconstruction duties. Spain has also pledged about 300 million US dollars towards Iraqi reconstruction.
After the latest attack Mr. Aznar addressed the nation, brushing aside demands for Spanish troops to be withdrawn. He insisted that the troops would remain in Iraq, justifying his action by saying, "Freedom is under threat from the terrorists." The prime minister has also assured President Bush that the tragedy would in no way weaken his determination to stay the course in Iraq.
Spanish opposition parties were largely against the military conflict and opposed the subsequent dispatch of troops to assist in postwar reconstruction efforts. They are now demanding that Spanish forces be immediately withdrawn.
So far Mr. Aznar has largely ignored strong Spanish anti-war sentiment, following a similar political approach to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair's own domestically unpopular pro-Bush policy has inflicted serious political damage on his premiership. His party is now lagging in the polls while his own personal leadership is under serious threat.
Mr. Aznar's own situation is less critical than Blair's as he is due to step down as prime minister before next March's general election. Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, will take over from Mr. Aznar if the party wins next year's general election. Members of Mr. Aznar's Popular Party are becoming increasingly concerned about the electoral damage the conflict is inflicting on their popularity ratings and it is not clear how this will affect the development of Spanish foreign policy.
Aznar's resolve seems unshaken by the bloody 24-hour period that has witnessed the killing of seven Spaniards, two American, two Japanese, two South Koreans and a Colombian. However, the Spanish public has been greatly disturbed by recent events. With an election on the horizon, there may soon be some shift in Spanish policy towards Iraq.
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