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Outgoing Spanish PM Believes Madrid Terror Attacks Caused Election Loss - 2004-04-18

Outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says he believes the terrorist bombings last month in Madrid caused his party to lose an expected election victory.

Spanish Prime Minister Aznar said he is certain terrorists planned the Madrid bombings a few days before the Spanish election in order to affect the outcome. On Fox News Sunday he said "I am quite convinced that if those attacks, those terrible attacks had not happened, the results of the elections would have been different. The Popular Party would have won these elections. I am absolutely convinced of this. It is an emotional, immediate reaction, and that produced those results."

Mr. Aznar's party, the pro-U.S. Popular Party, had been leading in the polls prior to the March 14 election. But it ended up losing to the Socialists, whose leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was sworn-in Saturday as Spain's prime minister.

Analysts say Spanish voters reacted to the tragedy of the terrorist attacks and the government's initial attempt to pin the blame solely on the Basque terrorist group, ETA. At the same time, a majority of the Spanish public opposed the Iraq war. Spain is contributing 1,300 troops to U.S.-led coalition forces there.

Mr. Zapatero had said the terms for keeping Spanish troops in Iraq would be U-N control over the coalition operation, following the U.S. handover of power on June 30. But, he told Spanish television Sunday he has ordered Spanish troops to be withdrawn as soon as possible, because he said it is unlikely that a U.N. resolution meeting his conditions will be adopted in time.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the March 11 Madrid attack continues. Spanish police have arrested about 20 suspects, mostly Moroccans, in connection with the bombings that killed nearly 200 people.

Mr. Aznar said al-Qaida is suspected of having been behind the attack, but he stressed that Spanish investigators have not yet confirmed any links. "I think this group of Moroccan cells, which has been in Spain for quite some time and is part of the so-called jihad, could have relations with al-Qaida, which still have to be confirmed. But it is, however, proof of the fact that you do not have a close hierarchy of terrorists. You have terrorists of many countries working in a long-term way," he said.

Prime Minister Aznar added that recent events in Spain should serve as a warning for other world leaders. "I told George Bush and Tony Blair and other political leaders to be extremely careful before elections, because terrorists will try and prevent them from reacting, and be very vigilant, more than ever, on those two dates," he said.

On the same television program, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration has learned a lesson from Madrid, and will be prepared. "I think we do have to take very seriously the thought that the terrorists may have learned, we hope, the wrong lesson from Spain. I think we also have to take seriously that they might try during the cycle leading up to the election, to do something. In some ways, it seems that it would be too good to pass up for them, so we are actively looking at that possibility, actively trying to make certain we are responding appropriately," she said.

Americans go to the polls in November, to cast votes for the country's next president.