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Spain says Iraq troops home in less than 6 weeks
Updated: 2004-04-20 08:49

The process of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq has begun and will be completed in less than six weeks, Spain's new government said on Monday.

Defense Minister Jose Bono said he would not give dates for the troop pullout for security reasons. But when asked at a news conference about a reported estimate of the time needed for withdrawal, Bono said: "Whoever said six to eight weeks was being imprudent because it will be less."

A military plane left on Monday with troops and equipment to help carry out the withdrawal, Bono said. Originally that flight was to have been for a routine troop rotation. State television said 194 soldiers were on board.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, sworn in as Spain's prime minister on Saturday, announced on Sunday he had given orders for Spain's 1,400 troops in Iraq "to come home in the shortest possible time and the greatest possible safety."

Zapatero said he was making good on a longstanding campaign promise to bring home the troops unless the United Nations took charge there politically and militarily by June 30.

He said he took his decision so soon because consultations with U.N. and world leaders showed there was no way a U.N. mandate meeting Spain's conditions was possible.

Zapatero ousted a strongly pro-American party in elections held three days after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people. A video purportedly from al Qaeda said the attacks were a response to Spanish actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. President Bush expressed regret on Monday to Zapatero over the decision and warned Madrid against taking further actions that could give "false comfort to terrorists," a White House spokesman said.

Though Spain's troops represent less than one percent of the coalition forces on the ground, Zapatero's decision creates more problems for the United States, whose forces are locked in fierce fighting in Iraq.

The withdrawal has raised fears in the United States that other coalition members could follow suit.

Poland pledged on Monday to keep its soldiers in Iraq but ruled out sending more soldiers to replace the Spaniards.

Bono said Spain was not running from a fight.

"The Spanish armies never run, but they always obey their government," Bono said.


Spain was not expecting any economic backlash for the withdrawal -- U.S. consumers boycotted French products after Paris refused to back Washington's decision to go to war -- and the U.S. government was still "a friend and a partner," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.

In Iraq, radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a halt to attacks on Spanish troops in Iraq because they were pulling out.

The response from European capitals was muted, some European policymakers expressing support or respect for Zapatero's move.

The withdrawal "does not mean that Spain is giving up its commitment to the stability and democratization of Iraq," Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in a speech in Madrid.

"And of course, we will be the leading actors in the international fight against terrorism," he said.

Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar defied overwhelming public opinion and supported Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Aznar then sent Spanish troops there after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Zapatero, then opposition leader, was a strident critic of the Iraq war all along.

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