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New Spanish leader vows troop withdraw
Updated: 2004-03-16 00:56

The leader of Spain's victorious Socialists said Monday he will bring Spanish troops home from Iraq by June 30, fulfilling a campaign pledge a day after his party's win in elections overshadowed by terrorist bombings.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told a Spanish radio station the Socialists' surprise win in Sunday's general election -- overshadowed by the Madrid train bombings that killed 200 people -- was the first consequence of the lack of popular support among Spaniards for the "disastrous" Iraq war.

"The second will be that the Spanish troops will come back," he said.

"Mr Blair and Mr Bush must do some reflection... you can't organize a war with lies."

Later during a news conference Monday, Zapatero said "It's evident that I considered the participation... of our country an error.''

"I think the military intervention was a political error for the international order, for the search for co-operation, for the defencee of the United States... I maintain the idea was an error,'' he said.

Zapatero said during his campaign that Spain's 1,300 troops, sent in the aftermath of last year's US-led invasion, might stay if the United Nations assumed control of the peacekeeping operation.

Asked Monday to specify a date or condition for withdrawal, he said, "I don't want to provide a date. I have expressed that June 30 is the limit... established by the government of our country,'' he said, adding a specific time would be set after he formally takes over as prime minister, some weeks from now.

The Popular Party's loss marks the first time a government that backed the US-led Iraq war has been voted out of office. A vast majority of Spaniards opposed the war.

Also during the news conference, Rodriguez Zapatero said: "My government will maintain cordial relations with all the governments of the world, and of course with the United States," Zapatero said.

When talking about relations with countries in Europe, Zapatero said his government would seek to recover "magnificent" ties with France and Germany, after relations where strained by Spain's pro-American stance on Iraq.

"My government, from day one, will try and I hope will succeed in recovering magnificent relations with France, with Germany and with all the countries of the European Union," Zapatero said.

In another development, a US spokesman reacted to the new Spanish leader's remarks Monday by saying that Spanish troops are playing a "critical'' role in US-led efforts to stabilize Iraq.

"Obviously Spain is a valued member of the coalition,'' said Dan Senor, chief spokesman of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority. "The Spaniards have performed heroically and are critical to our efforts here."

Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair telephoned Zapatero to congratulate him, officials said.

Blair's office said he had discussed a "wide range of issues'' with the new leader and didn't say whether the Spanish troop presence in Iraq was one of them.

However, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller lamented the defeat of the Spanish conservative party as causing "very serious complications'' for Poland, which risks losing Spanish troops from the multinational force it commands in Iraq.

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