Spanish plan to pull out of Iraq is 'moral cowardice', says Howard

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Michael Howard hit out yesterday at the "moral cowardice" of the incoming Spanish government for threatening to pull its troops out of Iraq as he urged the West to be ready to invade other nations that harbour terrorists.

Michael Howard hit out yesterday at the "moral cowardice" of the incoming Spanish government for threatening to pull its troops out of Iraq as he urged the West to be ready to invade other nations that harbour terrorists.

The Tory leader used a speech to a News International conference in Cancun, Mexico, to plead for the world's leaders not to lose their resolve after the Madrid bomb blasts that killed more than 200 people. His invitation to the annual gathering of Rupert Murdoch's media empire has prompted speculation that the tycoon could abandon his support for Tony Blair at the next election.

The Tory leader said "militant Islamic fanatics" could not be appeased and warned terrorists that a Madrid-style atrocity in the UK would make no difference to British policy whoever was in power.

He said: "Any government I lead will not flinch in its determination to win the war against terror wherever it has to be fought."

Mr Howard indicated his dismay at the outcome of the Spanish elections and the warning by the prime Minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, that he was planning to withdraw the country's soldiers from Iraq.

"It would be a terrible thing indeed if last week's murders in Madrid led the terrorists to conclude that attacking America results in retribution, but attacking Europe results in victory," he said.

"Countries cannot insulate themselves from terrorist attack by opting out of the war on terror. We cannot buy ourselves immunity by changing our foreign policy. Apart from the moral cowardice of that position, it can never work in practice."

Mr Howard said the world community had to stand firm in sending the message that the bombers had to be stopped from completing their "hideous journey".

He said: "They cannot be appeased. They can only be defeated - or they will win. And that would send half the world back into a new Dark Age - with the other half cowering in dreadful trepidation."

He said terrorism and instability had been fuelled by the failure to act decisively against Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s despite threats and provocation by the Iraqi dictator.

"That failure must never be repeated. It is of course crucial we reach out to the moderates in the Muslim world, the vast majority of whom share our common human values and abhor this violence. But we must face down terrorism and extremism wherever it comes from. We must act against rogue states, the breeding ground of international terrorism. And we must be ready to take pre-emptive military action, in exceptional cases, as a last resort," he said.

Mr Howard stood by the Tories' decision under his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, to give their backing to the invasion of Iraq, arguing there was "every reason to believe" that Saddam would have unleashed weapons of mass destruction on his enemies if he had been given the opportunity to do so.

"The war against Iraq was necessary. It was just. It was, indeed, arguably overdue. And, let us not forget, it was overwhelmingly successful - a judgment which subsequent difficulties do not change.

"Of course, there is still a hard road ahead. Iraq has become the frontline in the War against Terror. A stable and free Iraq is the greatest threat that the terrorists face. That is why they will do whatever they can to stop its creation. I have no doubt that if the West maintains its resolution, Iraq will be a much better place than it was under Saddam."

Mr Howard also warned that the relationship between Europe and the US had been under "serious strain" since the 11 September attacks of 2001. He said: "Only a strong western alliance can defeat the terrorists, just as we defeated communism."

He made a passionate plea for the principles of free enterprise to be spread around the world, with poorer nations given help to exploit "freer and increasing global trade".

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