WASHINGTON – U.S. officials are exploring ways to persuade Spain to keep its troops in Iraq, including the possibility of a separate United Nations command to oversee international forces.
Under that scenario, the U.S. military would continue to lead its own soldiers, while troops from Spain and other countries could be led by the United Nations, a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It’s not clear if the scenario would be acceptable to Spain. And Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “I wouldn’t want to speculate on any potential U.N. resolution in the future.”
But U.S. leaders have made clear they think it might be possible to accommodate the concerns of Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, despite his insistence that Spanish troops will leave unless the United Nations takes charge in Iraq.
“It’s not clear that Spain will withdraw,” Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Zapatero has said “there are conditions under which they can stay,” Pace said.
In an interview this week with National Public Radio, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, “They’ve indicated that there may be something they could do there. And we’ll see how.”
Spanish withdrawal would be a blow to Bush administration efforts to put an international face on a coalition overwhelmingly dominated by the 115,000 U.S. troops.
There have been other signs of cracks in the coalition. Poland had threatened to leave early, although on Friday it said it would stay as long as needed. Also Friday, South Korea (news – web sites)’s Defense Ministry said it would not send its troops to the area of Iraq that U.S. commanders had requested, although it would position them elsewhere in Iraq.
Spain’s 1,300 troops make up only about 1 percent of the coalition.
But withdrawal would be a significant diplomatic reversal for the Bush administration. Outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had been one of President Bush (news – web sites)’ closest allies on Iraq. And there could be a domestic political cost: Democrats say Americans are paying for Bush’s failure to build a broad international coalition in Iraq.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz expressed hope that Zapatero could change his mind about the withdrawal after taking office.
“People run for office on certain ideas. They mean them, they believe them. Sometimes they learn things after they get in office they didn’t know before,” Wolfowitz said Thursday on PBS’ “Jim Lehrer News Hour.”
Zapatero campaigned on a promise to withdraw Spain’s soldiers from Iraq by June 30 unless they are placed under a U.N. mandate. His upset victory Sunday came three days after bombings in Madrid that killed more than 200 people.
Since the election, Zapatero has given no indication that he is reconsidering his stance.
“If the United Nations does not take over the situation and there is not a rethinking of this chaotic occupation we are living through, in which there are more dead in the occupation than in the war phase, the Spanish troops are going to return to Spain,” Zapatero said Thursday.
Rumsfeld, for his part, has strongly rejected the possibility that U.S. forces would be placed under a U.N. or NATO command. “It would be a coalition – a U.N.-endorsed multinational force led by the United States,” Rumsfeld said.
The United Nations has already authorized forces in Iraq with a resolution approved in October. The State Department has said another resolution is possible in connection with the July 1 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis.
After largely shunning the United Nations in the early stages of the war, the Bush administration has appeared more eager to accept a larger U.N. role. U.S. officials are counting on the United Nations to help Iraqis form an interim government that will take control of the country.
The United Nations has accepted an Iraqi request for help with its political transition and Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he will soon send a team to Iraq. That team, though, will deal with political questions, not the military force.
Wolfowitz said Thursday he hoped this U.N. involvement would allow Zapatero to “find a way through that door he opened of the U.N.” and keep Spain’s troops in Iraq.
But Thomas Donnelly, a national security specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said he doubts the United States and Spain can find a middle ground.
“Other than one side backing down, I can’t see putting this Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he said.