MADRID, Spain – Spanish troops will remain in Iraq as part of its fight against "fanatical terrorism," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (search) said Sunday in an address broadcast live to a nation angered over the slaying of seven of its intelligence agents south of Baghdad (search).
Aznar, one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq war among European leaders, spoke as the agents' bodies arrived at Torrejon air base, some 15 miles north of Madrid.
"Our freedom is threatened by all terrorists," the prime minister said. "We know that a withdrawal would be the worst route we could take."
At the air base, light rain matched the mood of the 150 friends, family members and authorities who watched as the agents' coffins were taken from Spanish military aircraft and received by an honor guard. Aznar did not attend the ceremony.
The agents were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and rifle fire about 18 miles south of Baghdad. The one survivor returned home with the bodies of his comrades on the flight from Kuwait (search), accompanied by Defense Minister Federico Trillo.
The seven slain agents, who were between the ages of 36 and 49, were married and most had children; one was about to return home to see his newborn baby, the Defense Ministry said.
In a country where protests last spring against the Iraq war drew hundreds of thousands of people, the deaths of the agents provoked deep anger and calls for Spain to withdraw its 1,300 troops.
Spaniards said the ambush, followed by televised images of youths apparently celebrating the deaths, only reinforced their opposition to Spain's role as one of the main allies of the U.S.-effort to oust Saddam Hussein.
"I was shocked with the images as if it were happening to my own brother," said Gabina Bosco, a 70-year-old homemaker on a morning stroll in downtown Madrid. "But at the same time I felt furious against those who instigated this war and caused this massacre."
Aznar, in his short, somber speech, said "against fanatical terrorism there is no other option than confronting it," and he has no intention of withdrawing Spanish forces.
"We know that unity is our principal strength, and now is the moment to maintain it even stronger than ever," he said. "There is no alternative to the defense of freedom, democracy and the values that mark our way of life."
The attack on the agents occurred the same day that gunmen killed two Japanese diplomats at a food stand outside the village of Mukayshifa, on the road between Baghdad and Tikrit.
The ambush marked the first deaths of Japanese in Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in March, and threatened to undermine the already shaky public support for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has promised to support the United States by sending non-combat troops to Iraq.
Unlike in Spain, the anti-war protests in Tokyo never drew more than a few thousand people, but polls show a majority oppose the invasion. It is a sensitive issue in Japan, where the constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, bars the military from taking part in combat.
Koizumi said Sunday that his government would stick to its plan to send troops to help in Iraq's reconstruction. "Japan has a responsibility to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid in Iraq," he said. "There is no change to our policy of not giving in to terrorism."
Spain witnessed some of the biggest anti-war demonstrations in the world. A poll last week by the Elcano Institute in Madrid found some 85 percent of Spaniards disagree with the invasion.
The deaths of the intelligence agents weren't the first for Spain: On Oct. 9, gunmen killed a Spanish sergeant in Baghdad and a Spanish Navy captain died with 21 others in the Aug. 19 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.
But some in Spain said the ambush Saturday made the withdrawal of troops more urgent.
"The Spanish military have to return home without even thinking about it, now more than ever after this horrible attack," said Manuel Gonzalez del Valle, 54, telephone company worker.
Photos of the agents' bodies face-down on a dark road and young men putting their feet on the corpses and raising their arms in triumph were splashed across the front pages of every Madrid newspaper Sunday. TV stations broadcast the shocking footage repeatedly.
Opposition leaders and newspapers editorials, while offering condolences to the families of the victims and support for the armed forces, questioned the price that the country has had to pay.
"These are deaths that need explanations and reflections, without the smallest desire of using this tragedy as one more element of a political debate," El Mundo editorialized.