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Spain's PM-elect vows troop withdrawal
Updated: 2004-03-16 09:30

Spanish prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero vowed to withdraw troops from Iraq  and slammed US President George W. Bush over last year's invasion of the country, in a clear break with the politics of the government his party defeated.

An unidentified commuter stands in contemplation during the three minutes of silence at 12.00 CET at the Central railway station in Stockholm, Sweden.[Agencies]

"The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster," Zapatero, 43, told Cadena Ser radio.

Socialist Party (PSOE) leader and future prime minister Zapatero vowed to keep his pre-election pledge that barring new developments in Iraq before June 30 -- the date the United States has promised to hand over power to a provisional government -- Spain's 1,300 troops in Iraq "will return home".

Zapatero was speaking just hours after the PSOE dealt the conservative Popular Party (PP) of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a surprise defeat in general elections coloured by last Thursday's bombings of crowded Madrid commuter trains that killed 200 people and wounded 1,500.

The PSOE won 164 seats -- 12 shy of a majority in the 350-member parliament -- on Sunday, with the PP taking 148. The Socialists will now canvass support in the new parliament due to be convened in several weeks from groups such as the United Left, which won five seats, and the Catalan Republican Left.

The country's general state of shock and fears of further attacks, coupled with uncertainty as to who was to blame for the bombings, combined to depress the stock market both in Spain and across major foreign markets as share prices plunged.

An ongoing investigation into the attacks has found growing evidence they were carried out by Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda as punishment for Spain's participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Spanish police were still questioning three Moroccans and two Indians arrested Saturday in connection with the attacks.

Under Spanish anti-terrorist laws, they must either be charged or released by Thursday.

Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes announced Monday evening that a high-level meeting of EU anti-terrorist services would take place in Madrid "in the coming days," saying it would "pool resources, exchange information and discuss future planning."

He added checks on the bodies of the bomb victims had turned up no evidence to suggest suicide bombers had been involved in the attacks.

An undersecretary in the US Department of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson, earlier told NBC television: "I'm satisfied that there is an Al-Qaeda connection."

Spain's Socialists won 43 percent of the ballots Sunday to 38 percent for the PP, which saw its vote slump given almost blanket public opposition to the Iraq war as voters turned on the Aznar government over perceived links between the bombings and his decision to back the Iraqi conflict.

News that Zapatero intended to withdraw troops from Iraq sparked concern among other countries who have troops serving there.

An analyst at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chris Wright, said a pullout of Spain's 1,300-strong contingent could be "an indication perhaps that the coalition is beginning to weaken, possibly unravel".

Spain's contingent, the sixth-largest in Iraq, has suffered 11 deaths, including those of seven intelligence agents ambushed in November.

Zapatero, calling last year's invasion an "error," said that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom are facing elections in coming months, need to engage in "self-criticism" over the affair.

"You can't bomb a people" over a perceived threat, Zapatero said in comments coming five days before the first anniversary of the March 20 launch of the war.

"You can't organise a war on the basis of lies," he said, alluding to Bush's and Blair's insistence the war was justified by their belief -- so far unfounded -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which posed an imminent threat.

The head of the EU executive arm, European Commission chief Romano Prodi, agreed, in an interview published by Italy's La Stampa newspaper.

"It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists," Prodi said.

A spokesman for Blair meanwhile said the British leader had phoned Zapatero for a "warm and friendly" chat and that they were to meet in about six weeks' time, when Zapatero takes office.

A spokesman for President Bush also phoned to congratulate Zapatero on his win.

"Both leaders said that they look forward to working together particularly to fight terrorism," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"We still do not know who is responsible," McClellan added, regarding Thursday's bombings.

The investigation into the Madrid blasts suggested Al-Qaeda may have made good on a threat issued October 18 by its leader Osama bin Laden that Spain, Australia, Britain, Italy and other US allies would be targeted for attacks.

Spanish authorities were still seeking to authenticate a video found in a Madrid rubbish bin late Saturday in which a man claiming to be Al-Qaeda's spokesman in Europe said the Islamic radical network was responsible.

"We claim responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks in New York and Washington," said the man, speaking Arabic with a Moroccan accent and calling himself "Al-Qaeda's military spokesman in Europe".

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