Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Tuesday that Spain has completed the withdrawal of its peacekeeping troops from Iraq.
“No Spanish member of the Plus Ultra II brigade remains in Iraq,” Zapatero told Parliament in a debate on his decision to withdraw the 1,300 troops.
The Plus Ultra brigade is the name for the Spanish contingent, which was stationed in the south-central cities of Najaf and Diwaniya.
Zapatero said the only Spanish military personnel who remain in Iraq are logistics experts assigned with shipping home military equipment. He said these people should be out of Iraq by May 27.
Quicker withdrawal than expected
Zapatero, a strident war opponent, was elected on March 14, three days after train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid in attacks blamed by authorities on militants linked to al-Qaida.
His Socialists replaced a strongly pro-American party that had deployed forces in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
During the campaign Zapatero had promised to pull out of Iraq unless the United Nations took charge politically and militarily by June 30.
But on April 18, Zapatero’s second day in office, he ordered Spain’s 1,400 troops to return home as soon as possible, saying that after consulting world leaders he believed there was no chance Spain’s conditions would be met.
The move annoyed President Bush. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a close ally of Bush and unwavering supporter of the Iraq war, labeled the withdrawal appeasement in the wake of the train bombings.
With the main Plus Ultra II brigade gone, about 900 Spanish troops remained, all of them belonging to the special unit carrying out the withdrawal, newspaper El Pais said.
All remaining forces have left the flash-point city of Najaf for their main base at Diwaniya, officials said.
U.S. troops take over at Najaf
Spain had about 200 troops at the al-Andalus base in Najaf with the bulk of its force at Diwaniya.
Around 200 U.S. troops on Monday entered Najaf to protect the Spanish withdrawal and occupy their compound.
U.S. forces backed by aircraft killed dozens of Shiite militiamen in fierce overnight clashes near Najaf, residents and the U.S. military said Tuesday.
Spanish troops — part of an international force led by Poland — had killed at least eight Iraqi insurgents in ambushes over the last few days in or near Diwaniya.
The United States has started to take over responsibility for two provinces in south-central Iraq from troops from Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, which have begun to withdraw, the Polish army said Monday.