Voters dump Blair allies to sink war policy

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The Socialists' stunning victory in Spain's general election has sent shock waves through Downing Street and the White House, where hopes were pinned on success for a key ally in the war in Iraq.

The Socialists' stunning victory in Spain's general election has sent shock waves through Downing Street and the White House, where hopes were pinned on success for a key ally in the war in Iraq.

The sudden loss of power for Spain's ruling Popular Party, which joined Tony Blair in steadfastly supporting George Bush's "war on terror", is nothing short of a political earthquake.

With growing unhappiness over Iraq already eating into Mr Bush's lead in the race for re-election, and Mr Blair facing a crisis of credibility over his justification for the war, the Spanish upset could augur a total change in the political landscape for the three main protagonists in the war to oust Saddam. Like Britain's Labour Party, the Popular Party had dominated Spain's political life since the mid-90's.

A cartoonist in El Pais, a Spanish daily newspaper, captured the way in which the choices taken by voters in Spain crystallised: poised over a ballot box, a troubled voter was shown deciding between Eta ­ the Basque separatist group initially named by the government as the chief suspect in the attacks and al-Qa'ida ­ rather than the Popular Party and the Socialists.

Urgent consultations between London and Washington were believed to be under way last night as they braced for the arrival of an incoming Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has promised that he will pull Spanish troops out of Iraq in three months.

Until last Thursday's bombings, José Maria Aznar ­ a steadfast ally in the "war on terror" ­ appeared set to secure a third term in office for his party, led by his handpicked successor Mariano Rajoy, against the little-fancied Socialist opposition.

But at the same time as the polls opened, a videotape was discovered claiming responsibility for the Madrid train massacre on behalf of al-Qa'ida. It appeared just as angry and confused Spaniards were turning out to cast their votes and injected further drama into yesterday's general election, with voters already polarised by Thursday's bombing.

Campaigning had been called off after the atrocity but the tape, retrieved by police on Saturday from a rubbish bin near the city's biggest mosque after a phone tip-off, may have clinched the election for the socialists. On the video, a man who identified himself as Abu Dujan al-Afghani, "military spokesman of al-Qa'ida in Europe", said: "We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two and a half years after the attacks on New York and Washington ... This is a response to the crimes you have caused in the world, and specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there will be more, if God wills it ... more blood will flow."

The five men arrested on Saturday ­ three Moroccans and two Spaniards of Indian descent ­ traced via a phone card that was found with a bomb that failed to explode on one of the stricken trains, point as unambiguously as Mr Afghani to the true explanation for the outrage.

If an Islamist terrorist group carried out the attacks and not Eta, as the government so speedily charged, Mr Aznar and his party have some explaining to do.

The reluctance of the government to release a growing trail of evidence pointing towards an al-Qai'da attack, rather than Eta, was seen by many people in Spain as a cynical attempt to prevent their lead in the polls from collapsing.

Thousands of people turned out in several cities to protest outside ruling party offices. In Madrid, the protesters greeted the party leader, Mr Rajoy, with calls of "Liar!" and "Get our troops out of Iraq!" as he went to cast his vote.

In the popular view, without Spain's involvement in Iraq ­ 1,300 soldiers committed; the fourth biggest national contingent ­ the 200 who died in the bombings would almost certainly be alive, the 1,500 injured would still be in one piece. The decision to join Mr Blair and Mr Bush's military adventure in Iraq, in the teeth of the opposition of some 90 per cent of Spaniards, had backfired on the Popular Party.

Spanish voters, and there was a huge turnout, went to the polls yesterday knowing that a vote for the Popular Party meant a vote to stay in Iraq, and staying in Iraq meant, as the man on the videotape put it so bluntly, that "more and more blood will flow".

They could vote, therefore, with the Churchillian rhetoric of Tony Blair: "We will match their determination with our own; we will be as resolute as they are fanatical, as strong in defence as they are hell-bent on evil."

Or, with Mr Afghani's words ringing in their ears, they could decide that the position of Mr Zapatero, the Socialist leader, had more wisdom than they, perhaps, had previously admitted. Mr Zapatero repeated on Thursday what he had often said before: "On 30 June I will give the order for [Spanish troops in Iraq] to return home."

Behind the cold-blooded butchery of Thursday, so apparently mindless in its cruelty, some cold-blooded strategic thinking had been at work. The West has given a robust answer to the menaces of Osama bin Laden, inflicting serious damage to the al-Qa'ida network.

But, from the Islamist viewpoint the war has not been one-sided: it has seen the American pull-out from Saudi Arabia, the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and Ariel Sharon's stated aim of leaving Gaza. It seems that the result of the Spanish bombs will again see the Islamists claiming a victory.

The Victor

By Peter Popham

Although 90 per cent of Spaniards opposed their country's involvement in the Iraq war, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, has until recently been incapable of galvanising that to his advantage.

Last night it became clear that last Thursday's atrocity had finally brought that elusive extra backing. During the campaign Mr Zapatero pledged that if elected he would pull Spanish troops out of Iraq by 30 June. Spanish voters calculated that Thursday was a direct consequence of the Government's Iraq policy, and so they embraced him.

The grandson of a Republican army officer shot dead during the Civil War, Mr Zapatero, 43, has been in the party since his teens and became Spain's youngest MP in 1986.

The Socialist party's 14-year grip on power ended in 1996. When Joaquin Almunia fared disastrously in the election of 2000, Mr Zapatero replaced him. With his fresh-faced looks and mild manner, he seemed the ideal figurehead. But he had struggled to fulfil his promise and give the party a lucid platform.