Aznar put war on terror at the heart of his government

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The Independent Online

Spain's centre-right Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar ­ who is to step down after the general election scheduled for Sunday ­ has made the fight against terrorism a plank of his hard-line foreign and domestic policies during his two terms in office.

In the days after the suicide attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, the diminutive but tough-talking former tax collector emerged as one of the staunchest allies of President George Bush as he embarked on his international war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the second anniversary of the attack, Mr Aznar said: "Terrorism is the chief threat which our societies face. It is a threat which we must combat with force, determination and the collaboration of all nations. They were attacks on civilisation and on all of those who share the values and the principles of freedom and democracy."

The premier ­ who was himself the target of an Eta car bomb blast while an opposition leader in the mid 1990s ­ backed up the rhetoric with action. Bucking street protests and criticism at home for his political support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in the UN Security Council, he committed troops to a controversial post-war peace-keeping role.

In his all-out support for the war on terror, which has led to the politically costly deaths of seven serving Spanish intelligence officers in a roadside attack near Baghdad last November, Mr Aznar has also had an eye clearly focused on the national arena.

The policy, which has brought him closer to both Mr Bush and Tony Blair, has helped him to garner international support for Spain's war on home-grown terror group Eta, which has killed more than 1,000 people since it embarked on the armed struggle to achieve an independent Basque homeland in 1968.

The government achieved a significant diplomatic victory in December 2001 when it won support from the European Union to classify Eta as a terrorist group. It was the first time that all 15 member governments had reached consensus to label the group as such.

Mr Aznar's ruling Popular Party (PP) government also worked closely with French security authorities to hunt down Eta activists and planners working out of south-west France, recently claiming high-profile arrests that, in the words of the Interior Minister, Angel Acebes, had "dis-articulated the group's logistical structure".

An operation near the French town of Pau in December lead to the arrest of Eta's military chief, Gorka Palacios, while a separate swoop days earlier netted the group's elusive command operational leader, Ibon Fernandez, who organised attacks under thenomme de guerre of "Susper".

The war on terror, which the administration has been hammering home with renewed vigour during its second term in office, has also led to the arrest of Eta members seeking refuge from law enforcers in Latin America, with six supporters detained in Venezuela in 2002.

Mr Aznar, who won over Spaniards with his steely resolve and curt, no-nonsense manner, also led a campaign against Eta's support in the Basque country, passing the controversial Parties Law in August last year, which outlawed the terror group's political wing, Batasuna. The move was popular at home, but it roused criticism from minorities persuaded of the importance of political dialogue in the troubled region.

With Mr Aznar's hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, at the helm of the party as it heads into the elections on 14 March, the PP's hard-line policy on terror and is set to continue. Mr Rajoy has vowed to oppose an autonomy drive by powerful regions, such as the Basque country and Catalonia, and pledged to introduce new legal measures "to make the fight against terror more effective".

Political analysts say support for the government's stance remains as strong as ever with just two days to go to polling day

"I would say that public opinion is firmly persuaded that the government's anti-terrorism policy is correct," Juan Pablo Fusi, a historian attached to Madrid's Complutense University, told The Independent. "In recent years the number of fatalities from Eta attacks has been steadily declining, as has the political and street violence in the Basque country. After today's attacks, it is the politicians that advance a line of dialogue and a position of pacification or understanding towards nationalism that have been totally discredited."