MADRID, Spain – Defiant despite a crushing election defeat, outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (search) said Monday he does not regret supporting the war in Iraq and criticized his successor's plan to withdraw Spanish troops.
Aznar's remarks were his first in public since the March 14 general election in which his conservative Popular Party (search) crashed to surprise defeat amid charges that he had provoked the Madrid rail bombings (search) three days earlier by backing the war. The attack killed 202 people and wounded more than 1,800.
"I am going with my head held high and proud of the job I have done," he said in an interview with the TV station Telecinco. "I am leaving also with the pain of having accompanied so many people that have suffered, but with my hands clean."
Aznar said he did not regret supporting the war, which most Spaniards opposed. He said the world was better off without Saddam Hussein.
"We did what we had to do," Aznar said.
He criticized prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's (search) plans to pull Spain's 1,300 troops out of Iraq unless the United Nations takes charge. Some U.S. lawmakers have also said Zapatero would seem to be appeasing terrorists if he goes ahead with this withdrawal plan.
"You don't beat terrorism with concessions. You beat it by defeating it," Aznar said.
"I think that weakening the international coalition in the fight against terrorism is a grave error and I think the message terrorists may receive is a message that does not benefit us in the least in terms of our security or our international responsibility," Aznar said.
Asked if he accepted blame for his party's loss, Aznar noted that he had not run for another term. "But my party did not win the election and I am part of my party, the Popular Party. And therefore, we all have responsibility for it. It's only logical," Aznar said.
The night before the election, thousands of demonstrators rallied outside the party headquarters accusing Aznar of lying when he blamed armed Basque separatists for the bombings -- even as evidence of an Islamist link emerged -- in a bid to save the election.
They and the opposition Socialist party accused Aznar of making Spain a target for Al Qaeda by endorsing the Iraq war.
With Spain traumatized by its worst terrorist attack ever, Aznar was asked how he felt.
"Calm, serene, fulfilling my responsibilities and obligations as always, and thinking of course about all the things that have happened in our country. Let's say I don't curse the darkness, but I see a lot of light in hope and the future."