Militarily, the loss of the 1,300 Spanish soldiers will not mean much to the coalition, which is led by some 150,000 U.S. troops. But the Spanish withdrawal is the first of its kind, and fears are it could prompt other countries to reassess their participation.
Spanish officials say the actual pullout could start in 15 days. Speaking at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, the new prime minister said, "This morning, after the defense minister [Jose Bono] took up his duties, I gave him orders to do everything that is needed for the Spanish troops in Iraq to come back home in the shortest possible time and in the most secure way possible."
Zapatero, a Socialist whose party opposes the Iraq conflict, had previously said the Spanish contingent would only remain in Iraq if the United Nations took a prominent role. But his announcement showed he has given up hope of that.
"It is not likely that a UN resolution will be adopted that will meet the conditions we have set for our presence in Iraq. Those circumstances led me to take the decision to order the return of our soldiers with maximum security and in the shortest possible time," said Zapatero.
The European Union, meanwhile, has also called for the far greater involvement of the United Nations. A spokeswoman for European foreign-policy chief Javier Solana told reporters today in Brussels that, "Everyone should push for a UN role in Iraq...a Security Council resolution...as soon as possible."
As to whether other countries could follow Spain's lead, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice hinted at that possibility in comments yesterday: "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. 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 [there]."
Rice did not name any other countries, but one could be Poland. Poland leads a multinational contingent of troops numbering more than 9,000 soldiers. After the Madrid terror bombings last month, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski indicated he felt the United States had misled Poland on the situation in Iraq.
As political analyst James Waltson of the American University in Rome put it: "The big difficulty for the Americans will be the other, more wavering allies such as Denmark [and] Poland, who have alternative [political voices being raised]."
Italy too has problems. The man set to take over leadership of the Italian left opposition later this year, Romano Prodi, has already pledged to pull out Italy's 3,000-strong contingent. Prodi today welcomed Zapatero's announcement, saying it will send a "strong signal" to speed up the solution to the Iraq conflict.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says the reverse, namely that Italy must absolutely stay in Iraq to deter terrorism and extremism. But Berlusconi's hard line risks being undermined by the strong public opposition in Italy to the war, and the latest turn of events won't improve things. On 14 April, Iraqi insurgents killed one of four Italian hostages, and are threatening to kill the others unless Italy withdraws its troops from Iraq.
Analyst Waltson said that if Berlusconi's fractious center-right coalition does badly in the coming European Parliament elections in June, his hard line might start to soften.
"It is possible he will change if he suffers a serious defeat in the European elections, and that he will move more towards supporting a United Nations stance," Waltson said.
The United States' closest ally in Iraq is the United Kingdom, and Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in Washington last week, shows no sign of backing away from his commitment. But he is growing more isolated within his own ruling Labour Party, where many members want him to distance himself from U.S. policy.
Waltson noted that Blair has the advantage that his policies on Iraq face no serious opposition challenge in parliament, since the main opposition Conservative Party is also committed to standing by the side of the United States.
While the United States accepted the Spanish decision without much comment, some others in the coalition were more openly critical. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has also committed troops to Iraq, said today,
"I regret very much Spain's decision. Spain's decision will give heart to those people who are trying to delay the emergence of a free and democratic Iraq."
Japan, which has soldiers in Iraq engaged in strictly humanitarian tasks, said it is up to each country to decide the level of its commitment in Iraq, but it is also desirable that as many countries as possible take part in Iraq's reconstruction.