Aftermath in Spain
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RAY SUAREZ: Keith Richburg, welcome. In his first public news conference, the man expected to become the next Spanish premiere announced that unless the U.N. Took over the Iraq operation, he was going to be pulling Spain’s troops after June 30. Was this completely expected, is it what his party campaign does?
KEITH RICHBURG: That’s right. I mean, you know, the presence of Spanish troops has been deeply unpopular in Iraq. Back in November there were seven Spanish intelligence agents those were killed there, and then, of course, after this incident. This was completely expected, although he did add the caveat that they would be pulled out unless there was a united nations mandate, a new resolution, and the entire operation was taken over by the united nations, although some of his aides say privately they don’t expect that to happen by the June 30 deadline that he has given.
RAY SUAREZ: During that same news conference, he also sounded pretty critical of his E.U. Partner, Tony Blair, and Spain’s ally, the bush administration. Is that fair to say?
KEITH RICHBURG: Very much so. He criticized the entire justification for the war. He said that events have shown that the war was an error. He said that Bush and Blair should do some self reflection and self criticism. And in the strongest words, he said they went to war in what he called, in his words, a lie.
It really… even though he came out and said that he wanted to have cordial relations the White House, and he did accept a telephone call today from President Bush, the tone of this news conference really indicates to me that it’s going to be a very radically different relationship between Spain and the United States.
RAY SUAREZ: And now that there’s been almost a day to digest some of the results from yesterday’s election, is it more easy to understand what part the bombings of last week played in the result?
KEITH RICHBURG: It’s both complicated and very simple. It’s complicated on one level, because Spaniards were reacting really to the perception that the government here was withholding information it had to indicate that al-Qaida was responsible for these attacks.
As you recall in the initial minutes and hours after this horrific attack, the government said it was ETA, the Basque separatist movement. And it was not until much, much later, close to 11:00, midnight here, that information started to trickle out that it may have been Islamic extremists involved. So there was a perception that the government was withholding this information because it would be damaging to the government’s election campaign.
On the other hand, Iraq has always been a very hot button campaign issue here. Most Spaniards oppose the war, they oppose Spain getting involved. And it just so happened that in the last weeks of this campaign the Iraq issue had gone to the back burner and economic issues had moved to the front. So really, on one level what this is is very simple: It moved foreign policy in Iraq back to a front burner issue, and that’s why the popular party lost.
RAY SUAREZ: So the bombing turned the Aznar government position on Iraq and support for the U.S. into the real heart of the matter, the heart of the election?
KEITH RICHBURG: It really was just… it was an emotional vote, in some ways, people were very angry about what happened. They were very angry that, in their view– and this is really a perception– that the government was misleading them with information; was initially blaming ETA, because blaming ETA would be seen as something that would benefit the government.
That perception was so widespread that on Saturday night, when the word of the first arrest of these three Moroccans came out and two Indian-born Spaniards, thousands of people took to the streets here in Madrid, they surrounded the popular party headquarters, banking pots in a sign protest, shouting “liar,” shouting “cover-up.” And also, another factor here, you had two million or so new voters, people who just turned 18 who had not voted four years ago, and they turned out in huge numbers to vote against this government. They would have been probably traditionally left-leaning voters anyway.
This issue, this terrorist attack, motivated them to come out, and what they were really saying was, we don’t want this higher international profile that President Aznar, the prime minister here, president of the government, we don’t want this higher international profile, we don’t want to be so closely aligned with Washington, we don’t want to get these kind of reprise attacks coming here.
RAY SUAREZ: Is ETA totally off the hook? Is the attention how going elsewhere? What’s the latest in the investigation?
KEITH RICHBURG: Well, ETA, you never want to say anybody is totally off the hook, and one avenue that investigators are looking at is perhaps the terrorist those did this, and assuming it is al-Qaida, perhaps they may have purchased explosives, or they may have done the actual purchase of the explosives from some operatives of ETA.
That’s really kind of speculation, but that’s one line of inquiry that hasn’t really been closed off. But the intelligence sources we’ve been talking to, people in other Arab countries and also other European capitals pretty much say the ETA track is a dead end. It looks pretty much like an al-Qaida operation.
RAY SUAREZ: And now there’s attention focused on the cell phones that they may have been part of the bombing attack?
KEITH RICHBURG: That was the link. That was how they first got to these five suspects who were arrested. And two others, I should add, are also being detained for questioning. They found on one of the bombed trains a sports bag, a gym bag, containing explosives wired to a cell phone. They believe that the cell phone were the way these devices had been triggered in the backpacks and sports bags before. One of them had not exploded.
Using that cell phone and sim card, they were able to trace that to… directly to one of these Moroccans. Apparently they were running a small cell phone rental company and sales company in a district here of Madrid. That initially led them to some of these suspects, and they found out in fact, that at least one of these suspects had been on their surveillance list before because of these attacks, you remember, from last may in Casablanca. So that’s how they’ve made this connection, and also, of course, we had the emergence of this videotape from someone claiming to be a military operative for al-Qaida in Europe. That was the second piece of evidence linking this to al-Qaida.
RAY SUAREZ: Looking ahead to the next few weeks, does this new socialist-led government take over immediately, or is there a transitional phase here?
KEITH RICHBURG: There will be a little bit of time of transition here. The government, the incoming socialist government did not get an absolute majority. They came very close; they’re about 12 seats short. They’ll need to do some negotiations with potential partners on a coalition. Those will be regional parties, smaller regional parties from other places around Spain. They will form a government. It might take some time.
They’ve got up to three months; they’ll probably do it within about a month or so. We should see some movement on that front happening, I think, around April. And that’s when I think you’re going to start seeing the real major changes in policy. But up until then, the Aznar government is still there. Aznar is still prime minister.
RAY SUAREZ: Keith Richburg from the “Washington Post” joining us from Madrid. Thanks a lot, Keith.
KEITH RICHBURG: Thank you.