WASHINGTON, April 19 (UPI) -- When, a month ago, Bush administration officials privately urged newly elected Spanish socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero not to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, his standard reply was that his campaign promise had been misread. Yes, he was committed to a pullout, but there was also the small print. He had vowed -- he would say -- to bring Spain's 1,300-strong contingent home unless the United Nations assumed control of peacekeeping operations after the scheduled June 30 U.S. handover of power to an Iraqi government.
But on Sunday, within hours of taking office, Zapatero announced that Spanish troops would leave Iraq "in the shortest time and with the best possible safety."
The announcement caused surprise and dismay in Washington where the Bush administration had been hoping to negotiate a compromise with the new Spanish government a little later down the line. In a five-minute conversation (described by Spanish sources as "businesslike") with Zapatero Monday, President Bush expressed his "regret" at the "abrupt" withdrawal. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush urged Zapatero to ensure that the pullout should "take place in a coordinated manner that does not put at risk other coalition forces in Iraq."
The newspaper ABC, reflecting Spanish conservative opinion, said Monday that Zapatero had "flagrantly gone back on his word and on his campaign commitment." The paper charged that he never had any intention of waiting until June 30.
But knowledgeable observers said Zapatero's action found considerable favor among Spaniards. More than 70 percent backed the prime minister's action -- not surprising given that at least 90 percent of Spaniards before the war were against their country's military involvement in Iraq. On his first full day in office, the new prime minister had made use of the element of surprise to show himself as decisive, in control -- and not looking over his shoulder for Washington's approval.
If in the process Zapatero had managed to irritate the Bush administration, that, for many, was an added bonus, such is the depth of feeling against Bush in Spain today.
Julian Santamaria, political science professor at Madrid's Complutense University and a leading pollster said, "The issue has become a critical test of Zapatero's credibility in Spain."
Zapatero has "apparently paid a lot of attention to this one situation since he won the election and has explored in depth to what extent there was any likelihood that his conditions to keep the troops in Iraq were accepted," said Santamaria, who is also a former Spanish ambassador to Washington. "He may have come to the conclusion that there were none and anticipated his decision to minimize the risks it may entail to have them there for another two months at a time when the Iraq situation is running out of control."
According to the Madrid newspaper El Pais, Zapatero speeded up his decision after his new Defense Minister Jose Bono returned from an unpublicized day trip to Washington a fortnight ago with a gloomy report on the prospects of the United Nations stepping in by the summer.
"The chaos and violence that Iraq is experiencing make it enormously difficult for the United Nations to assume political direction of that country," El Pais said. "As for direction of the military, the United States had clearly let Zapatero and his associates know that it would not agree to American troops being placed under the command of that world organization or any other."
With European elections looming in mid-June, and with Spain's troops in Iraq increasingly in harm's way in an escalating conflict which Madrid had little say in controlling, an earlier pullout had "all the logic of a good political decision," said one Spanish official, reached by telephone in Madrid Monday. "Zapatero has removed from the June campaign the issue that dominated the March 14 Spanish general elections and can now concentrate on other priorities," the official said.
The prime minister himself, speaking to reporters in his first official press conference Monday, said, "With the information we have, and which we have gathered over the past few weeks, it is not forgeable that the United Nations will adopt a resolution" that meets Spain's terms. "There are no indications that permit us to expect a change in the political and military situation in Iraq within the scheduled timeframe, and in the direction desired by the Spanish people."
His announcement contrasts with that of Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, who has vowed that Britain will stay and finish the job, although it is hard to determine exactly what the job is.
Zapatero's decision marks the formal break-up of the Azores Trio, the solid alliance so named after the decisive Bush-Aznar-Blair meeting in the Azores at which the date for the Iraq invasion was decided.
Spain's new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, arrived in Washington Monday hoping to convince the Bush administration that Zapatero's decision "should not affect bi-lateral relations between Spain and the United States," as he told reporters Monday. Spain would honor the financial commitment it has made towards Iraq's reconstruction, and was ready to continue working on other joint projects. But Zapatero has signaled a shift in Madrid's foreign policy, away from Washington and towards Europe. From the start, Zapatero had questioned the legality of the Iraq intervention and endorsed the EU opposition led by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. His pullout decision, in effect, has reunited Europe -- or most of it -- in opposition to Washington.
The inevitable question, of course, is: at what price? Moratinos said Spaniards will have to "grin and bear" the scathing comments of U.S. critics. Islamic extremists linked to the al-Qaida network and claiming responsibility for the March 11 bomb attacks in Madrid said they had done so because of Spain's military presence in Iraq. Now Zapatero was pulling out his troops even as Italy, Britain, Poland and other countries were expressing their determination not to give in to intimidation.
Observers said Washington was likely to take a less benign view of Spain's growing political and commercial activity in Latin America, particularly when it ran up against U.S. interests. On the other hand, Spain would not be putting in jeopardy any big Iraq reconstruction contracts because it had not received any.
Some months back, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother, stood on the tarmac at Madrid's Barrajas International Airport and promised Spaniards "incredible benefits" if Spain continued to support his brother in Iraq. From all accounts, the Spaniards are still waiting.