Published March 24, 2004
| Associated Press
MADRID, Spain – Spain's incoming prime minister held firm on a June 30 date for withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq in talks Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell (search), who offered an immediate dialogue on the United Nations' role there, a government spokesman said.
Powell, in Madrid (search) for the state funeral of victims of the March 11 train bombings, met briefly with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search), whose Socialists defeated the conservative Popular Party in elections three days after the attacks.
At a briefing, Miguel Angel Moratinos, the likely next foreign minister, said Powell asked how the United States could work with Spain in the United Nations to address Zapatero's concerns.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), meeting earlier with Zapatero, raised the question of a new resolution that would give the United Nations a greater role in the occupation of Iraq.
In a news conference in Lisbon later Wednesday, Blair acknowledged differences within the European Union over the Iraq war that toppled Saddam Hussein (search) but called for unity to help rebuild the country.
"Of course there is a disagreement over the issue of Iraq with Mr. Zapatero," Blair said. "That is all known. But I think that everybody accepts that whatever their position is on the war in Iraq, the essential thing now is to help the Iraqi people."
Spain under outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (search) endorsed the invasion and deployed peacekeeping troops. Most Spaniards, including the Socialists, virulently opposed the conflict, and voted Aznar's Popular Party out of power.
Fulfilling a key campaign pledge, Zapatero promised to pull out Spain's troops unless the United Nations takes control of the occupation.
The daily El Pais reported Tuesday that Zapatero intends to increase the Spanish contingent of 125 troops in Afghanistan to offset criticism of the withdrawal from Iraq.
Julian Lacalle, a spokesman for Zapatero, declined to confirm or deny that report. Until Zapatero becomes prime minister, Lacalle said, "he won't talk about specific policies."
A new U.N. resolution is seen as a possible way to address Zapatero's demand. There might be a separate U.N. command to oversee international forces, while the United States leads its own troops, a State Department official said last week.
The Bush administration has suggested it may support a U.N. resolution in connection with the upcoming transfer of power in Iraq.
Powell spent 15 minutes with Zapatero after the funeral Mass.
Moratinos said Zapatero told Powell that the target date for the troop withdrawal remained June 30 unless there was a radical change in U.N. control.
It was not clear from briefings by U.S. or British officials traveling with Powell and Blair when a discussion might take place at the United Nations, nor what precisely might be done -- if anything -- to persuade Zapatero.
A U.S. administration official said Zapatero made clear he had not changed his opposition to U.S. policies in Iraq, though he and Powell agreed on the need for cooperation in the war on terrorism.
The Blair spokesman said the British leader and Zapatero didn't enter into any specific details about a U.N. resolution. A resolution was "touched upon as something that the Americans and British were looking toward," he said on condition of anonymity.
A British official said Blair told Zapatero he recognized the Spanish leader's "domestic imperative" and the mandate he received from the Spanish people.
Zapatero said he hoped to go to London for talks after he takes office next month, the British spokesman said.