Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Spain vote may turn on blame

BASQUES OR ISLAMISTS?Political observers think that if the Spanish public decides that support for the US' Iraq war led to the Madrid bombings, Aznar's party may be punished

AP , MADRID, SPAIN

Depending on who voters believe is responsible for the Madrid bombings, today's general election in Spain could turn into a referendum on Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's support for the Iraq war.

Spaniards reacted furiously last year when Aznar aligned himself with President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the US-led invasion. Aznar did not send combat troops but did dispatch 1,300 peacekeepers.

The Spanish government initially blamed the Basque separatist group ETA for Thursday's devastating train blasts in downtown Madrid that killed 199 people and wounded more than 1,400. But now it is analyzing a reported claim of responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda.

The conventional wisdom ahead of today's election is that Aznar's conservative Popular Party (PP) will be rewarded at the polls if Spaniards accept the government assertion pointing at ETA. The party has fought the group tooth and nail.

If people see al-Qaeda's hand in the carnage, Spaniards might view the attacks as retribution for Aznar's Iraq policy and punish his Popular Party. Aznar is not seeking a third term as prime minister.

Elisa Roller, a contemporary Spanish studies professor at Manchester University in England, said she expects huge turnout and a resounding victory for the ruling Popular Party.

But if an al-Qaeda connection is proven by the voting, she said, that could change things.

"Then people will blame the PP saying, `Hey, you got us into this, being all buddy-buddy with Britain and the United States.' I'd say the PP will be watching its back between now and then," Roller said.

A caller claiming to represent ETA telephoned the pro-Basque daily newspaper Gara and said the separatist group "has no responsibility whatsoever" for the attacks, the paper said. ETA often issues statements through the Basque-language paper.

It was believed to be the first time ETA has issued such a denial for Thursday's bombings.

Also, Arnaldo Otegi, a top Basque politician, denied ETA was involved and accused Aznar's outgoing government of "lying deliberately" about the bombing to seek political advantage.

On Thursday, police found a stolen van with seven detonators and an Arabic-language tape parked in a suburb where three of the bombed trains originated.

Later, a statement was sent to an Arabic paper in London claiming the attacks were the work of al-Qaeda.

Ramon Cotarelo, a political history professor at Madrid's Complutense University, said he believes the attacks were the work of Arab terrorists exacting retribution for Spanish support for the Iraq war.

"The government will try to keep the focus on ETA, but it's impossible," he said. "I'd guess the PP is going to lose the election."

On Friday, a senior opposition Socialist party official, Jose Blanco, accused the government of withholding information on the possibility of an Islamic link to the Madrid blasts, in which 10 backpack bombs exploded on trains along 14km of commuter line. Police also found and detonated three other bombs.

"Whoever toys with the truth at a time of so much pain is doing something very grave," Blanco told Antena 3 radio, according to the news agency Efe.

After a two-week campaign in which the battle against ETA had been a major issue, Thursday's bombings stunned the country. They were the worst terror attacks in Spain's history.

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