Did al-Qaeda Change Spain's Regime?

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Denis Doyle/AP

New Spanish leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero faces the press

The Socialist Party's dramatic upset victory in Spain's election on Sunday may be counted by al-Qaeda as its first success in the business of regime-change. It's certainly true that before last Thursday's horrific train bombings in Madrid that killed 201 people and wounded more than 1,000, the conservative Popular Party — whose outgoing leader, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had been the Bush administration's closest Iraq-war ally in Europe — had looked set to coast home by a 5 to 8 percent margin. But once it became clear that bombers came from al-Qaeda rather than the Basque separatists blamed by the government, voters showed up in record numbers to defeat Aznar's party. But even if the catalyst came from al-Qaeda, the election turned into a referendum on Spain's involvement in the Iraq invasion, and the result was a sharp rebuke of a government that had defied its electorate to march in lockstep with the U.S.

The reason voters chose doves over hawks three days after suffering the worst bloodshed on Spanish soil since the country's civil war is simple: the widespread belief that the country had become a target for Islamist terror because of its support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Spain might have been targeted anyway, because of its effective police and intelligence campaign that has netted a number of al-Qaeda operatives — or even simply because Andalusia before 1492 was the European foothold of the old Islamic caliphate that bin Laden dreams of reviving. But in the minds of many a Spanish voter, last week's attacks were al-Qaeda making good on bin Laden's vow, last October, to punish those nations that had supported Bush and Blair in Iraq.

Had this vote been held a year ago, the outcome would have been similar — polls last March found that as much as 90 percent of Spanish voters opposed their government's support for the war in Iraq. The latest terror attacks simply put the Iraq issue back at center stage. That much was made clear by the victorious 43-year-old Socialist Party candidate, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose key election promise was that he would withdraw the 1,300 troops sent by Spain to support the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Zapatero said Monday that the troops would be home by June 30, unless the United Nations was placed in charge of security in Iraq. "The war has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a disaster," he said. "It has only generated violence."

Not that Spain is about to buckle before the bombers: Zapatero immediately vowed that his "immediate priority is to fight terrorism in all its forms." Despite misgivings over the conduct of U.S. policy in the Arab world, the Socialists have supported Spain's close cooperation with the U.S. to weed out al-Qaeda cells. But they complained that the Iraq invasion had nothing to do with fighting terrorism, and instead had distracted and detracted from that struggle.

Aznar's party was not helped in the days following the attack by its continued insistence on blaming the bombings on the Basque separatist group ETA, despite evidence pointing to radical Islamists, ETA denials and al-Qaeda claims of responsibility. If ETA had been responsible, of course, the attacks would likely have swelled support for the ruling party and its hard line on the separatists. Instead, the electoral rebuke of a leader who waged an unpopular war may give pause for thought to others in a similar position, first among them Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair who is expected to hold an election next year.

The Spanish result is an even sharper setback for the Bush administration, however. Washington had showcased Aznar's backing for the war as evidence of European support, hoping to isolate France and Germany as the odd men out on the continent. Instead, Zapatero has been mandated by voters to fulfill his promise of moving Spain far closer to France and Germany — and further away from Washington — in the conduct of foreign policy. The loss of 1,300 Spanish garrison troops in Iraq won't be militarily significant to the Coalition. Poland has already indicated its willingness to continue the command responsibility for the zone south of Baghdad, of which it was supposed to be relieved by Spain on July 1. But politically, it's a vote of no-confidence in the Bush administration by a country on which it had relied heavily for diplomatic support, and whose influence it had used to help recruit Latin American countries to the coalition.

Still, France and Germany aren't exactly crowing. The Madrid attack has reminded European leaders how much more vulnerable they are than the U.S. to terror attacks on their own soil for reasons of geography (the proximity of the Arab world), demography (large Arab immigrant populations) and the EU integration that has eliminated border crossings in much of the continent. At the urging of Germany, a special summit of EU foreign ministers meets later this week to coordinate responses and tighten security measures.

In the end the bombings did not change the opinion of the Spanish voters as much as spur them to the voting booths to express their views. The ruling party lost only 900,000 of the vote tally it had received in the last election, but the Socialists expanded their own haul by almost 3 million. That's because voter turnout was about 10 percent higher than last time, and a convincing majority of the estimated 2 million first-time voters appear to have preferred the antiwar party.

The Spanish result will likely be read in al-Qaeda circles as a dramatic victory, and that could prompt the movement's networks to invest in seeking to influence the outcome of elections elsewhere. Britons are expected to vote next year, while U.S. voters go to the polls in November, and the incentive will clearly be there for al-Qaeda-related groups to make their mark on those elections, too. It doesn't take a soothsayer to predict that new terror attacks in Britain or the U.S. would be more likely to stampede the voters behind Blair and Bush than to bolster any antiwar challengers. But that's unlikely to stop the terrorists from trying.