Radical Islamic cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has welcomed Spain’s decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq “in the shortest time possible,” as U.S. officials braced for more possible pullouts.
According to a spokesman in the Iraqi city of Najaf, the Shiite cleric praised Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s decision Sunday to pull Spain’s 1,400-plus troops from Iraq.
Al-Sadr also is asking that people from all coalition countries put pressure on their governments to follow Spain and recall their forces, spokesman Fuad al-Turfi said.
The cleric’s supporters have been fighting coalition troops since the coalition closed their newspaper and arrested one of al-Sadr’s deputies in connection with the killing of a rival cleric last year.
The coalition is seeking to capture or kill al-Sadr, who is wanted for questioning in the same killing, but it is feared that military action could spark further violence.
Several parties, including Iranians, are trying to negotiate with al-Sadr.
Spain’s Iraq contingent is based near Najaf, where an uprising led al-Sadr began two weeks ago. It is part of a Polish-led multinational brigade based in southern Iraq.
Spain’s new Socialist prime minister announced the pullout decision — his first since taking office Saturday from conservative U.S. ally Jose Maria Aznar — out of fear that uncertainty would put Spanish troops at greater risk, officials said.
Zapatero had campaigned in last month’s election on a pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless the United Nations took over “political and military control” of the country by June 30.
The Socialists’ surprise election victory came three days after the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed 190 people — attacks blamed on Islamic terrorists.
The al Qaeda terrorist network had threatened Spain publicly for its support of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Spain’s National Court has charged 18 people, including 14 Moroccans, in the bombings.
As violence in Iraq continues, Washington is prepared for the possibility that other countries in the coalition could follow Spain in pulling out troops.
“We know that there are others who are going to have to assess how they see the risk,” U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told ABC’s “This Week.”
“We have 34 countries with forces on the ground. I think there are going to be some changes.”
Spain’s new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said he had spoken to U.S., British, Polish, German and Arab officials as well as U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi before the new government took the decision.
“I cannot hide that there was a certain degree of disappointment from (U.S.) Secretary of State Colin Powell,” Reuters quoted Moratinos as telling Cadena Ser radio.
“But he told me he understood the political reasons for the decision and that he wanted to maintain the highest relations with me and the whole Spanish government.”
Moratinos, who heads to Washington this week for talks with Powell and Rice, said the decision was taken once it became clear there was no prospect of a U.N. resolution that would meet Spain’s conditions.
“We consulted with senior U.N. officials … and with other allies. What they all said was that it was very difficult for the U.N. to take full political responsibility and military leadership in Iraq after the handover of power to the Iraqi government on June 30,” Reuters quoted Moratinos as telling Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
Moratinos said the decision “should not affect bilateral relations between Spain and the United States” and noted Spain’s new government will comply with pledges made at a recent Iraq donor conference and help rebuild the country.
“We’re not washing our hands” of the situation, he told El Pais, according to The Associated Press.
In Washington, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee said Zapatero “jumped the gun” by not waiting to see what steps the United States and the United Nations will take in coming weeks.
“I hope al Qaeda does not misinterpret this, and I hope it’s temporary and the Spaniards will be back,” Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, told CNN.
“If they are not willing to stay in Iraq, they could prove that they’re still with us in the war on terrorism by sending those Spanish troops to Afghanistan. We need their help there.”
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said: “We will work with our coalition partners in Iraq and the Spanish government, and we expect they will implement their decision in a coordinated, responsible and orderly manner.”
In Madrid, most Spanish political parties endorsed Zapatero’s decision, while the now-opposition Popular Party immediately denounced it, AP reported.
Mariano Rajoy, Aznar’s hand-picked candidate who lost to Zapatero in the election, said the decision made Spain “much more vulnerable and weak in the face of terrorism in the face of terrorism.”
Zapatero has “thrown in the towel” rather than try to exhaust all possibilities of getting a new U.N. resolution to meet his demands, AP quoted Rajoy as saying.