Zapatero refuses to reverse policy on Iraq

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair was rebuffed yesterday when he tried to persuade Spain's incoming Prime Minister not to pull his troops out of Iraq.

Tony Blair was rebuffed yesterday when he tried to persuade Spain's incoming Prime Minister not to pull his troops out of Iraq.

Mr Blair was forced to accept that Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero would honour his general election pledge, whatever happened in Iraq before the planned handover of power to the Iraqi interim government on 30 June. Ministers had hoped a United Nations-approved transfer of power would be enough to keep the Spanish contingent of 1,300 troops in Iraq, despite the new Socialist government's anti-war stance.

Mr Blair met Mr Zapatero for nearly an hour before a memorial service in Madrid for the 202 victims of the terrorist bombings earlier this month. Iraq dominated Mr Blair's agenda, but Downing Street acknowledged that Mr Zapatero would have to honour his pledge to pull troops out.

A Downing street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister set out how he hoped the situation would move on in Iraq up to 30 June as we handed control to the Iraqis in a way the United Nations would approve of. Señor Zapatero set out the stance that he took during his election campaign and the Prime Minister said that he understood that whichever way the situation moved in Iraq, that was the position [of] the Spanish people."

The withdrawal of Spanish troops is inevitable. Officials believe domestic considerations make it impossible for the Spanish leader to back down.

Mr Blair has a tough task building relations with the new administration after enjoying a close friendship with the outgoing Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. But aides said the talks were characterised by "understanding" despite Mr Zapatero's criticism of Mr Blair and President Bush.

Speaking after his election victory 10 days ago, Mr Zapatero condemned the invasion of Iraq as based on "lies" and attacked the occupation as a "fiasco". He warned at the time: "The war in Iraq was a huge disaster, the occupation continues to be a huge disaster; it has only generated more violence and hatred and the lesson has to be learnt."

But yesterday he made clear his commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, met Mr Zapatero after the funeral and said that the American government was willing to negotiate a United Nations resolution on Iraq that would enable Madrid to keep its troops in place.

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