The US coalition in Iraq has suffered a grave loss. I do not mean the dozens of servicemen who have died in the guerrilla war in the past few weeks. Their death has become as ordinary as the wailing of muezzins. I mean the extraordinary retreat of a seemingly loyal US ally from the battlefront.
On Sunday, Jose Luis Zapatero, the new Prime Minister of Spain, announced that he had ordered the Spanish troops to leave Iraq "without delay." The premier does not believe the UN will play a substantial role in Iraq soon - it was his main condition for keeping the 1,300 Spaniards in Iraq.
It was an extremely bitter pill for George W. Bush. The occupation coalition is falling apart at a time when the US president is trying desperately to share responsibility for chaos in Iraq with his allies. Spain today, Poland tomorrow? The old partners are leaving the Iraqi barracks, taking with them the bitter taste of disappointment in the results of the war. And there are no new partners queuing for the questionable privilege. This is taking barely two months before the ceremonious transfer of power to the provisional government of Iraq, when the USA needs shoulders on which to shift the vague future of a ruined country.
Washington has chastised Madrid. In her interview with Fox News, national security adviser Condi Rice has warned that terrorists may make a wrong conclusion from the Madrid decision, thinking that explosions can undermine the international coalition fighting them. In fact, it was Ms Rice's interpretation of the US neo-conservatives' thesis, who claim the new Spanish government is capitulating to terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Party of Zapatero has advocated the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq long before the hair-raising March 11 terrorist acts on the Spanish railway. The Spanish opposition had criticised the now former Premier Jose Maria Aznar for sending Spanish boys to Iraq without discussing the issue in the parliament and contrary to the opinion of 90% of the population. So, Zapatero's decision has nothing to do with capitulation. The premier simply fulfilled his election promise as soon as he got the chance.
Washington has reasons to take the withdrawal of Spaniards as a personal blow. The thing is that they were deployed along the northwestern perimeter of Najaf, a city controlled by the units of Shiite Imam Muktad al-Sadr, who is leading the revolt of his co-religionists. The imam is in Najaf and the Americans are trying to talk with the rebel leader. Muktad al-Sadr says he will talk, but only if the aggression is stopped in all Iraqi provinces and foreign troops do not enter the sacred Shiite cities of Kerbela and Najaf.
The pullout of the Spanish troops before the Americans' talks with Imam Muktad or during them will cast a bright light on acute contradictions in the occupation forces and greatly weaken Washington's negotiating stand.
Though Zapatero's decision is a logical implementation of his election programme, there is one thing that could quicken his step. As the situation in Iraq is deteriorating dramatically, Madrid, just as the other European allies of the USA, is coming to see more clearly that the war in Iraq and the war against international terrorism are two different and unconnected wars. Moreover, the former is hindering the latter by drawing military and financial resources from it. Besides, al-Qaeda got in Iraq a wonderful geographic bridgehead for terrorists of all stripes and an ideological pretext - protection of the country from foreign occupation.
It was al-Qaeda and not Iraq that attacked the USA on September 11, 2001. The international terrorist army has not been routed to this day and Osama bin laden is still at large. However, less than two months after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, President Bush, who seemed to have forgotten who organised the crimes, ordered the Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to draw a war plan against Iraq. Famous Washington journalist Bob Woodward, one of the investigators of the Watergate scandal, provides secret details in his recent book, "Plan of Attack."
He writes that the attack against Iraq was planned in absolute secrecy, including from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. A group of neo-conservatives, who suggested the idea of the Iraqi war to the president, clearly did not hope to convince the State Secretary and the National Security Adviser about a connection between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden.
The reaction of the US brass hats to the war order is highly indicative: Woodward writes in his book that Gen. Tom Franks, then head of the US Central Command and the Afghan operation, swore openly.
Woodward claims that Bush made the final decision on the attack on Iraq in January 2003, though the UN inspection was in full swing and the Security Council was still waiting for its results. But barely a month later, in March 2003, the US president said publicly that the question of the potential use of force against Iraq had not been decided.
The journalist provides in his book a verbatim record of a conversation between Vice President Richard Cheney and Saudi Ambassador to the USA Prince Bandar bin Sultan, whom the Americans had to notify in advance of the forthcoming military operation against Iraq.
The Ambassador asked what would happen to Saddam Hussein. The Vice President replied: "Once we start, Saddam is toast."
These are vital details that show how secretly the Iraqi war was planned even in the US administration. It matured in a cocoon of lies as a military operation whose aims were opposite to the goals of counter-terrorist struggle.
The withdrawal of Spain from Iraq is a vivid example of an ally seeing the light and this example can encourage other partners, who had been drawn into Washington's fallacious plan, to follow suit.