Spain Refused US Military Request to Hunt down Iraq Leader

Yesterday in different interviews with the Spanish media, both the Defence Minister Jose Bono and the military commander of Spanish troops in Iraq, General Enrique de Ayala, confirmed that Spain refused a request received from the U.S. military command to capture “dead or alive” a leading Iraqui religious leader (presumably the radical chii iman Muqtada Al Sader.

In declarations to Cadena Ser, General Ayala said “Our mandate from the Spanish government was to carry out a mission of stabilization and humanitarian aid. The equipment we brought was conceived for that mission and we received no change of mandate to wage large-scale military operations.” In a frank interview, General Ayala said he thought the decision by coalition troops to close a local newspaper in Nayaf, and to arrest Muqtada Al Sader were strategic errors which had only served to worsen the relations between locals and military troops. He said the atmosphere had taken a turn for the worse since these actions in the predominantly Chii area where Spanish troops are deployed, and said that had he been consulted by his US military colleagues he would have advised against these two unpopular measures.

Meanwhile Jose Bono, in the news conference held yesterday after visiting the Spanish troops in Iraq, backed the General and said that Spain could not “take part in offensive actions and therefore we said flat-out that we were not willing to hand in, as we were asked at one point, alive or dead, a certain religious leader.” Bono said that withdrawal operations are progressing well, and that the troops may be home a few days earlier than May 27 as originally scheduled. He said control of the Spanish base in the south-central city of Diwaniyah would be handed over to the U.S. troops some time between May 13-15.