MADRID, Spain – Spain's prime minister on Sunday ordered Spanish troops pulled out of Iraq as soon as possible, fulfilling a campaign pledge to a nation recovering from terrorist bombings that Al Qaeda (search) militants said were reprisal for Spain's support of the war.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search) issued the abrupt recall just hours after his government was sworn in, saying there was no sign the United States would meet his demand for United Nations control of the postwar occupation -- his ultimatum for keeping troops there.
Zapatero's Socialist (search) party won the March 14 general election amid allegations that outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (search), by backing the war in Iraq, had provoked commuter-train terrorist bombings that killed 191 people three days before the vote.
Though Zapatero had promised to remove Spanish troops, his immediate action was a bombshell, and a setback for the United States as Spain's new foreign minister prepared to travel to Washington to discuss the dispute.
The Bush administration has been eager to maintain an international veneer on the increasingly besieged coalition force in Iraq, which is dominated by its 130,000 American troops.
In a five-minute address at the Moncloa Palace, Zapatero said he had ordered Defense Minister Jose Bono (search) to "do what is necessary for the Spanish troops stationed in Iraq to return home in the shortest time possible."
He cited his campaign pledge to bring the 1,300 troops in Iraq home by June 30, when their mandate expires, if the United Nations failed to take political and military control.
"With the information we have, and which we have gathered over the past few weeks, it is not foreseeable that the United Nations will adopt a resolution" that satisfies Spain's terms by its deadline, Zapatero said.
The latest polls show 72 percent of Spaniards want the troops withdrawn.
The government did not say when it would start removing its forces, but officials in Cairo said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was told by his Spanish counterpart, Miguel Angel Moratinos, that Spain would pull out of Iraq in 15 days. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Egypt's foreign ministry later backtracked from that in a statement, however, saying the Spanish leader said "the date will be announced in Iraq and has not yet been fixed."
In Washington, U.S. officials said Zapatero's announcement was not a surprise.
"We knew from the recent Spanish election that it was the new prime minister's intention to withdraw Spanish troops from the coalition in Iraq," said a White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius. "We will work with our coalition partners in Iraq and the Spanish government and expect they will implement their decision in a coordinated, responsible and orderly manner."
Mariano Rajoy, who ran against Zapatero in the election after Aznar decided not to seek another term, said the decision made Spain "much more vulnerable and weak in the face of terrorism in the face of terrorism."
Zapatero has "thrown in the towel" rather than try to exhaust all possibilities of getting a U.N. resolution to meet his demands, Rajoy said.
But many other politicians praised Zapatero, including Jose Antonio Labordeta, a congressman from a small party based in Aragon in the northeast.
"What Zapatero did is keep his word, which is rare in this country. For the first time, we have come across a politician who keeps his word," Labordeta told the news agency Efe.
Bono, the defense secretary, is reported to have met secretly in Washington with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) on April 5.
Moratinos, the foreign secretary, said he will travel Tuesday to Washington to discuss Spain's plans with Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search).
Before Sunday's announcement, the newspaper El Pais said Moratinos would offer nonmilitary cooperation, such as training Iraqi police, if Zapatero made good on his vow. Now, it appears the visit was designed from the outset to announce the withdrawal decision, not to talk about how to keep Spanish troops in place.
In his announcement, Zapatero indicated that nothing argued for him to reverse the course of his campaign pledge.
"These circumstances have led me to take the decision to order the return of our troops with the maximum safety and thus in the shortest time possible," Zapatero said.
"More than anything, this decision reflects my desire to keep the promise I made to the Spanish people more than a year ago," he said.
He said Bono would give details in coming days of the process of bringing the soldiers home, and that he himself had convened an urgent meeting of Parliament to discuss his decision.
Zapatero said Spain's government would continue to support Iraq's stability, democratization, territorial integrity and reconstruction. Spain will also support any U.N. or European Union effort to help Iraqis' recover sovereignty and hold free, democratic elections, he said.
Spanish troops have been stationed in south-central Iraq with responsibility for Diwaniya and the flashpoint Shiite holy city of Najaf. Eleven of the Spaniards have died since August, including seven intelligence agents in a highway ambush in November.
In a videotape found the night before the election, an Arabic-speaking man claiming to speak for Al Qaeda said the bombings were punishment for Aznar's support of the war. Before then, Aznar's party had been expected to easily win.
Zapatero's warning of a possible Spanish withdrawal had prompted some U.S. lawmakers to charge such a move would appear to be appeasing terrorists. Zapatero rejected this, saying his idea of removing them came long before the March 11 bombing.
Aznar, a close Bush ally who deployed the troops, said Sunday that withdrawing them would only lead to more violence and chaos in Iraq.
"That will not be good for Spain, not a good day for the coalition, and a very good day for those who don't want stability and democracy in Iraq," Aznar said on "Fox News Sunday."