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Socialists oust spains ruling party { March 15 2004 }

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Socialists Oust Spain's Ruling Party
Monday March 15, 2004 2:46 AM


Associated Press Writer

MADRID, Spain (AP) - Spain's Socialists scored a dramatic upset in elections Sunday, unseating conservatives stung by charges they provoked the Madrid terror bombings by supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq and making Spain a target for al-Qaida.

It was the first time a government that backed the Iraq war has been voted out of office. Incoming prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has pledged to bring home the 1,300 troops Spain has stationed in Iraq when their tour of duty ends in July.

The defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party and his hand-picked successor capped four tumultuous days starting with the attacks that killed 200 people and wounded 1,500. The attacks were followed by massive street rallies against the bombings and smaller ones against the government.

The arrest of five suspects, including three Moroccans, and a reported al-Qaida claim of responsibility, raised the disturbing prospect that terrorists aligned with Osama bin Laden had changed the course of a national election. The Spain government has insisted its prime suspect in Thursday's rail bombings was the armed Basque separatist group ETA.

Before the attacks, polls had given the governing party a lead of 3-5 percentage points.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, Zapatero's Spanish Socialist Workers Party soared from 125 seats to 164 in the outgoing 350-seat legislature. The ruling Popular Party fell from 183 to 148.

The Popular Party cannot try to form a governing coalition because it has no virtually no allies in the legislature, where it had enjoyed a majority and was often accused of riding roughshod over opponents.

Zapatero began his victory speech with a minute of silence for those killed in the terror attacks.

``At this moment I think of the lives that were broken by terror on Thursday,'' he said. ``My most immediate priority will be to fight terrorism.''

The numbers will leave Zapatero short of a majority - or 176 seats - and he will have to seek help to form a government.

The Socialists ruled Spain from 1982-1996 but ran afoul of corruption scandals and were voted out of power.

Savoring victory again outside the Socialist party headquarters, several hundred supporters cheered the results. But they, too, remembered the 200 people killed in Thursday's railway blasts. ``Not all of us are here. Two hundred are missing,'' the crowd shouted.

``I think the party won because of people's frustration people about the Popular Party getting us into the war in Iraq,'' said one of them, housewife Loli Carrasco Gomez, 36.

Of the troops in Iraq, she said: ``I hope they all come home and never go back.''

The government had insisted that its prime suspect in the bombings was ETA, even as evidence mounted of an Islamic link. The government was accused of withholding information on the investigation to save the election.

Throughout Sunday, voters said they lost faith in the ruling party, in power since 1996.

``I wasn't planning to vote, but I am here today because the Popular Party is responsible for murders here and in Iraq,'' said Ernesto Sanchez-Gey, 48, who voted in Barcelona.

Some voters, however, expressed support for the ruling party precisely because it endorsed the Iraq war, and for its crackdown on ETA.

Mari Carmen Pinadero Martinez, 58, a housewife, said she ``voted to help the government end terrorism'' as she cast her ballot near the downtown Atocha railway station where trains were bombed.

In El Pozo northeast of Madrid, site of one of the four blasts, a ruined train car was in clear view of the polling station as were flowers for the victims, signs stating ``Paz'' (Peace) and dozens of lit candles.

Some of the voters, teary-eyed, held onto relatives and friends for support.

On Sunday, a Basque-language daily published a statement by ETA in which the group for a second time denied involvement in the attacks.

A videotape purportedly from al-Qaida claimed Thursday that the Islamic terror network was behind Thursday's attacks, and Spanish authorities have arrested three Moroccans and two Indian suspects.

Jamal Zougam, one of the Moroccans, was a follower of suspected al-Qaida leader Imad Yarkas, jailed in Spain for allegedly helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

Zougam and thousands of other Moroccans were put under police surveillance after May terrorist bombings in the coastal city of Casablanca that killed 33 people and 12 bombers, a Moroccan official told AP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

8m people march [jpg]
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