Transcript: Did Spain's Elections Hand Al Qaeda a Victory?

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, March 15, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The prime minister elected in Spain socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search) wants to remove Spanish troops from Iraq unless the U.N. takes over. Zapatero believes Al Qaeda launched last week's train terror in retaliation for the Iraq War.

Ambassador Inocencio Arias (search) is Spain's representative to the United Nations. He is also chairman of the Security Council's counter terrorism committee. Today's big question, does the Spanish government blame Al Qaeda (search) for this terror attack?

AMB. INOCENCIO ARIAS, SPAIN'S U.N. AMBASSADOR: We are starting to blame. At the beginning, more fingers pointed to the Basque terrorist group ETA (search), but now quite a few things are pointing towards Al Qaeda, yes.

GIBSON: Do you think that — why did the Spanish people upon realizing it was Al Qaeda throw out the former prime minister and bring in somebody new?

ARIAS: We don't know yet, but the Spanish people got the impression that the government was reacting slowly to what was happening. And it seems they were quite opposed to the Iraqi war. And they pushed Aznar out thinking Al Qaeda targeted us because we were in the Iraqi war. And now we have to punish the government.

GIBSON: Do you view the government election outcome as a victory for Al Qaeda?

ARIAS: It has some influence. It has some influence because all the polls three days before, five polls were giving victory to the government. And suddenly almost overnight after the terrorist attack, this atrocious act, the people voted for the opposition party, so it has something to do certainly.

GIBSON: Do you think the Spanish people realize that they just voted a victory for Al Qaeda?

ARIAS: No, the Spanish people are — they are angry at the government, you know? At the same time they were in a shock. And they had the feeling that the government wasn't reacting or telling the whole truth. I think that wasn't fair. I think the government was telling the truth, but the people after they — 200 dead and 1,300 injured, they got the feeling, quite a few, especially young people, that the government was procrastinating or withholding the truth. I think that was false and the government was giving information, but the impression was that. And the government didn't react quick enough to dispel this impression.

GIBSON: Did Spanish voters say to Al Qaeda leave us alone, we will vote this government out that went to Iraq along with the United States. We will get rid of them. Now, leave us alone.

ARIAS: No, that more complicated than that. The Spanish people hate Al Qaeda. The Spanish people, 99 percent, hate Al Qaeda, but they reacted against the government for the reason I said. A wrong impression of what the government was doing.

GIBSON: Nonetheless, if you were in Britain right now, wouldn't you think this is a terrible time to be using public transportation or any vulnerable thing? If they could do it in Spain, why can't they do it in Britain?

ARIAS: Certainly. How will you stop the people in rush hour taking trains, you know, in this line like 800,000 people take the train every day.

GIBSON: If you can topple a government in Spain, why not move on somewhere else?

ARIAS: Well, I don't know how the public would react, but, obviously, European countries, Western countries must prepare to fight it because they will strike again. Terrorists will strike again.

GIBSON: You know, the new prime minister, Mr. Zapatero, says that terrorism will be his number one fight.

ARIAS: Certainly.

GIBSON: But how could it be?

ARIAS: The socialist party has never been lukewarm in the fight against terrorism. The former prime minister...

GIBSON: Is he going to have to fight terrorism? The terrorists — well, the Al Qaeda terrorists could be done with Spain. They may want to move... You may have to fight the Basque terrorists, but the Al Qaeda terrorists have no reason to deal with you.

ARIAS: You will have to fight the Basque terrorists, the Al Qaeda terrorists, we have fought the Al Qaeda terrorists. And he will have to keep on fighting the Al Qaeda terrorists, but the position of the war and this attack in Madrid made the public get an impression that ousted the government.

GIBSON: Would it be fair to say that the Spanish public has abandoned the United States?

ARIAS: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. The socialist party in the past has been a loyal ally of the United states. And I remember — I worked with the Socialist Party. I was deputy secretary of state with them, and I remember at the time that Spain was going to pull out of NATO... We didn't pull out from NATO, we remain a faithful and loyal ally. And this new premier, Mr. Zapatero, he has no choice. I mean, we have a close ...

GIBSON: What does it mean to be an ally now? If the United States needs an ally ...

ARIAS: He ran the campaign saying that he was against the war, and now he must stick with his promise. He was against the Iraqi war. He said that he didn't see any role in the Spanish troops there, and now he must be faithful to that.

GIBSON: But what is left? What is left for Spain to be an ally over?

ARIAS: Left? To fight terrorists all over the world with the United States, and keeping the American bases in Spain and having good relation with the United states, and supporting the United States in many fields. I mean, this man, he said, I am against the war. He was very clear. And I was working for the government who supported the war, but I remember he said very clearly from the beginning I'm against the war, and if I come to office, I will — I will withdraw the Spanish troops unless the United Nations come in. United Nations come into Iraq, I will not withdraw the troops. So that's democracy. I don't think — I don't think — which Spanish prime minister can't afford to have bad relations with United States? No one.

GIBSON: We'll see. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

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