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Spain's Pullout Seen To Augur 'Changes' In Iraq

19 April 2004 -- The United States says it expects that other countries with forces in Iraq will reassess their positions in the country following the announcement by Spain's new prime minister that he wants Spanish troops withdrawn from Iraq "as soon as possible."

U.S. President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said on television yesterday that she believes there could be "some changes" among the 34 countries with forces serving with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

"We know that the Spanish have been talking about perhaps pulling their forces out [of Iraq]. I would not be at all surprised if they do," Rice said. "We know that there are others [countries] who are going to have to assess how they see the risk [of staying in Iraq]. But we have a vibrant and robust coalition on the ground [in Iraq]."

Newly sworn-in Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in Madrid yesterday that he has ordered that Spain's 1,300 troops in Iraq be brought home as soon as possible.

A top aide of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said today that the radical militia leader has ordered his Iraqi supporters to avoid targeting Spanish soldiers following Zapatero's announcement. Shaykh Qays al-Khazali said al-Sadr supporters have been ordered to "maintain the safety of Spanish forces" and called on governments of other countries with troops in Iraq to follow Spain's example.

The governments of two of Washington's staunchest allies in the conflict in Iraq -- Japan and Australia -- today criticized the Spanish prime minister's announcement. Australian Prime Minister John Howard called the move a "bad decision" and said it will "give heart to those people who are trying to delay the emergence of a free and democratic Iraq."

Efforts continued today to end the confrontations between U.S. troops with al-Sadr supporters in Al-Najaf and Sunni Muslim insurgents in Al-Fallujah, but there were no signs of progress.

Al-Sadr's office in Al-Najaf yesterday announced a two-day truce in the city to allow religious pilgrims to observe the anniversary of the death of Prophet Mohammad.

Meanwhile, the UN special envoy for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, was in Italy today for talks on Iraq. Brahimi, currently on a tour of European countries to discuss the situation in Iraq, was due to meet with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini to discuss a UN plan for a transitional authority in Iraq until elections in January.

Frattini met earlier today with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to discuss the situation in Iraq. In a joint statement released after their meeting, Frattini and Kharrazi called for a rapid and effective transfer of power to a legitimate Iraqi authority by 30 June. Both foreign ministers agreed on the need for the United Nations to assume a greater role in Iraq.

The top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, issued a statement on 18 April conceding what many had already concluded -- namely, that Iraq's police and armed forces will not have the capability to secure the country from the threat of insurgents by the time the United States hands over power to an Iraqi government at the end of June.

Bremer said events of the past two weeks show that Iraq still faces security threats and needs outside help to deal with them.

Zapatero, whose Socialists won the 14 March elections, had promised voters during the election campaign that he would withdraw Spain's forces from Iraq unless they came under a United Nations mandate.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius offered no opinion on the Spanish announcement but said the Bush administration would continue close cooperation with Spain in the war against terrorism.

Spain's new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is expected to visit Washington this week for talks with U.S. officials.