LONDON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- Much to the annoyance of the Spanish government Wednesday, the bands played on the British colony of Gibraltar, the fireworks were clearly seen across the border in Spain, and 15,000 Gibraltarians linked hands around the Rock defiantly declaring that Gib was theirs -- and British, not Spanish.
Thus Gibraltar marked the 300th anniversary of its capture from Spain, an event that still so rankles the Spanish that the government ordered flags at the Gibraltar border to be lowered to half staff and its foreign minister to declare the arrival there of British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon as "unhelpful."
To the dismay of Gibraltarians, Spanish objections also persuaded the U.S. government to cancel a tercentenary visit of the destroyer USS McFaul. This prompted the prime minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruna, to tell the Gibraltar Chronicle: "We had not thought that the U.S. Navy sought permission from third countries before they decided what ports they visit. ... It represents a huge snub to a population which has always been supportive of the American use of Gibraltar."
To be fair to the Americans, they do have two important military bases in Spain, including a naval base at Rota, as well as use of Gibraltar, and they have long chafed at having to be sensitive about appearing to favor the Brits or Spanish, both fellow NATO members, over an anachronistic 300-year-old colonial debate that predates the independence of their own country.
But U.S. defense sources have told UPI that if they had to make a choice between Spain and Britain-Gibraltar in current geo-strategic terms, they would have to stick with the latter.
"You just have to look at the last few months," said one U.S. official, who declined to be identified. "Spain changed its government right after the Madrid bombings and pulled its troops out of Iraq - not what we need (in the war on terror) right now."
From a fundamental defense point of view, Gibraltar holds the edge over Spain because it controls the straits into and out of the Mediterranean - a vital choke point from the Napoleonic wars through two world wars, the Cold War and now the war on terrorism.
Sophisticated acoustic equipment designed to detect Soviet submarines still lie on the floor of the straits and are believed now to have been adjusted to identify much smaller craft. Inside the Rock are still-secret training areas and state-of the-art communications equipment linking Britain's Government Communication Headquarters and the U.S. National Security Agency. Radar and visual scans of the straits are conducted 24 hours a day from the top of the rock.
After 9/11, NATO boosted anti-terrorist patrols with 200 sailors from the German navy, using three speedboats operating from Gibraltar. That operation is now coming to an end, but Britain's Royal Navy has picked up the role using fast patrol boats moved from anti-IRA operations in Northern Ireland. A specialist Royal Navy diving team checks to ensure the Gibraltar harbor is clear of mines. Special anti-terrorist operations have occasionally been revealed when Spanish police have caught British military personnel and their equipment in Spain, as recently as last June.
The need for such security was demonstrated last year, when Moroccan security forces foiled an al-Qaeda-associated plot to attack U.S. and British naval ships in the straits, reportedly using one or more high-speed inflatable speedboats. It takes only 15 minutes to cross the straits by such means, and an attack on any Western naval or civilian ship is considered a considered a major possibility.
Furthermore, Gibraltar has one of the few still-usable dry docks accessible to U.S., British or other NATO navies in the western Mediterranean, and an adjacent airfield well used to military operations.
But it is Gibraltar's political value that is equally important. It is in many respects more British than the British, making it a more solid ally to the United States than the vagaries of Spanish politics. Gibraltar's 18,000 voters were, in fact, so opposed to British plans to share their sovereignty with Spain that 98.97 per cent of them voted against it in a referendum in 2002, in an 88 percent turnout.
While Spanish Foreign Secretary Miguel Angel Moratinos told the national newspaper El Pais at the weekend that it was "very strange that in this 21st century, the military occupation of part of an EU member-state's territory is commemorated by another member-state," the Gibraltarians argue that Spain itself maintains colonies in Morocco at Ceuta and Melilla and has no plans to cede sovereignty.
The argument about handing back territories seized hundreds of years ago affects so many nations it is considered virtually sterile (the arguable exception may be Hong Kong). In Britain's view, there is so little chance of Gibraltarians changing their mind about staying with Britain, and so little chance of swaying the new socialist government of Spanish Premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero becoming more Atlanticist and Anglo-American, that they might as well enjoy the tercentenary.
It was therefore with some delight that the British frigate HMS Grafton fired a 21-gun salute - the first navy ship to do so in 54 years - when it entered Gibraltar harbor last Friday. The salute sent the Spanish, who clearly heard it at the border town of La Linea and neighboring Algeceiras, into a flurry of outrage, involving diplomatic notes and newspaper editorials.
But with Hoon arriving in Gib to take the salute from 300 British marines and troops carrying the specially approved insignia of Queen Elizabeth II, it was clear that Britain doesn't really give a hoot.