The Announcement of the Withdrawal of Troops from Iraq, 20 Years Later

Jordi Xuclà

15 mins - 18 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

The winner of the 2004 general elections, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, decided to fulfil his electoral commitment to withdraw Spanish troops in Iraq in the early stages of his government in order to "avoid the pressures that could have made it impossible to fulfil the word given". He announced the withdrawal of troops from Iraq on 18 April 2004, a few hours after his government took office. His first decision as president. A decision that marked a new stage: international politics became relevant in the shaping of party identities in today's democratic Spain.  

Zapatero decided that José Bono would be his future Minister of Defence and charged him with preparing in political and logistical terms the withdrawal of troops from Iraq within a short period of one month for when he decided to make it effective.

Bono had been Zapatero's main challenger in the battle for the PSOE's general secretariat in July 2000. Outside the government, Bono could have remained a loose cannon. He had already been president of the Castilla-la Mancha regional government for more than twenty years. Zapatero offered him a powerful ministry and a pact of complicity, which worked for a couple of years.  

Bono was in charge of the transfer of power in the sensitive area of security after the recent terrorist attacks of 11 March 2004. He was in charge in dialogue with the acting Defence Minister, Federico Trillo, who behaved loyally and discreetly as he sensed the preparations for the withdrawal. The handover team had to talk to an acting government of José María Aznar that found it an aberration to cancel one of its most prominent and controversial measures: support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sending of troops to "secure peace".

Zapatero initiated the first international contacts to sound out the international community in the five meetings with foreign leaders that he held on 24 March in Madrid as part of the state funeral for the Atocha bombing. He was accompanied at those meetings by his future foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos. There he realised that if he allowed himself to get caught up in the web of diplomatic talks, he would not be able to carry out his intention of a rapid withdrawal and avoid the pressures he was already beginning to feel.

In light of this conclusion, he decided that José Bono should handle the preparations for withdrawal with total discretion and determination. Bono, who was not a specialist in international relations and was still president of the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla-la Mancha, had to manage to meet with Donald Rumsfeld (US Secretary of State for Defence), the Polish Defence Minister, the UK Defence Minister and the President of the Italian Council of Ministers, Silvio Berlusconi. All this in a fortnight and through the most varied contacts. Raphael and Julio Iglesias helped him reach Donald Rumsfeld, for example.

A month and three days in which Zapatero decided to play hardball and use the strength he had within his party from the recent electoral victory of 14 March 2004.

Many moves happened in one month. Manuel Marín, former European Commissioner and Socialist spokesman for foreign affairs in Congress in the previous legislature, was convinced that he should be the new foreign minister. The culmination of his career in international politics. Something told Zapatero that with Marín in foreign affairs things would be complicated. He made a quick decision, which he announced three days after the election victory: Marín would be president of Congress, the third highest authority in the state. A piece fitted.

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Javier Solana was an authoritative voice in socialism and international relations. After being Secretary General of NATO, in that month of March 2004 he was the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Solana variable must also have been on his mind in that hectic month. The socialist who was best connected and in tune with the US administration would not be inclined to participate in a high-voltage operation, an affront to the "American ally and friend". Zapatero decided to involve Felipe González in his plans for the immediate withdrawal of troops in order to reconcile with the old socialist guard. He asked him for advice, informed him and assured him a position of influence in the return of socialism to power. During this month, González instructed the presidential candidate on the labyrinths of power: the secret services, the army, the relationship with the Royal House...

All this was easier with Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba enrolled in the kitchen of the new power. He would be the parliamentary spokesman and negotiator of support for the investiture in the first vote. He was aware of the intentions of an immediate withdrawal (without knowing what "immediate" meant in the calendar) and accompanied Felipe González in the process of silencing his sceptical comments about the new president. Power, this great cohesive force: Zapatero, Bono and Felipe González together at the same table in Ferraz preparing for the arrival of the government and ready to face the US administration's rebuff.

During the month between the election victory and the announcement of the troop withdrawal, Zapatero played with ambiguity. In interviews in the media and before some international leaders, he maintained the position that the United Nations should take control of the mission in Iraq. The decision to transfer the mission to the United Nations and to protect it under a resolution in accordance with international law was to be discussed in New York at the end of June 2004. Many thought that Zapatero would not "dare" to make a move until the end of June. "Pretend and dissimulate", the maxim of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, was the pattern of the election winner's behaviour during this month. He did not think things would change at the end of June, but above all he was keen to start his mandate with a bang: the immediate withdrawal of troops. It was so immediate that everything was designed so that on the same day the government took office, 18 April, the order would be executed, international leaders would be informed and a press conference would be held at six o'clock in the evening. The presentation of the new government to society and a break with the past of the Aznar government, which had been involved in the Azores photo-op and the division of the EU (the old Europe, the new Europe) in the invasion of Iraq. Zapatero took a decision that would lead to minimal relations with the US administration for years, but opened the door to a privileged relationship with the governments of Germany and France, the two major European countries opposed to the invasion of Iraq. It also opened the door to a new axis of European power that operated during his first years in office: Berlin-Paris-Madrid.

The election winner wanted Miguel Ángel Moratinos to be his foreign minister. He was in tune with his vision of foreign policy and, at the same time and perhaps more importantly, he was new to the business of the executive branch, easier to govern than the old guard. Moratinos had been a PSOE militant since 2000 although he was a closely guarded secret and was presented as the signing of a prestigious independent on the advisory committee that Zapatero presented in 2003 in preparation for his election campaign. But Moratinos was still a career diplomat who could be dazzled in the first preliminary contacts with foreign authorities. Zapatero saw this clearly when, at the 24 March meeting in Madrid, an able Colin Powell made a commitment to him and Moratinos to continue talking about their intentions at a meeting in Washington on 21 April between the two countries' foreign policy chiefs. They accepted the proposal, although they did not fulfil the commitment. That meeting started badly: the US Secretary of State was kept waiting for twenty minutes in the congressional lame duck lounge while an easy and attuned conversation with President Chirac continued in the Queen's Room. Powell almost cancelled the meeting. What started badly did not improve for the rest of George W. Bush's presidency.

Bono was more determined and given to the pragmatism of power to carry out the future president's orders. He was more enthusiastic about withdrawal without diplomatic or geopolitical qualms. 

The meeting with the Polish defence minister was of singular importance: Spain shared with Poland the same sector and command of the area of occupied Iraq. Spain's withdrawal left the Polish army in a situation of urgent reorganisation of its forces on the ground. The Spanish ambassador to Poland was informed of a visit by the president of an Autonomous Community to the Minister of Defence. Miguel Ángel Navarro was a diplomat with very good contacts in the country to which he was accredited. Navarro, a diplomat of great prestige, joined the meeting and drafted a detailed note for the acting foreign minister, Ana de Palacio. But Navarro was a skilled public servant who went from informing the incumbent government of the 'imminent' intentions of the election winners to being appointed Secretary General for the EU in the new Socialist government. Office. The confidential note, a piece of subtlety and transition from one government to another.

Bono was also due to meet Tony Blair in London, but microphones had captured a conversation at the party's federal committee in January of that year in which he turned the British leader inside out. He wrote him a letter of apology, but even then he did not get the meeting. He settled for talks with the British Defence Minister. The tricky thing that day was that he had a meeting in London in the morning and a meeting with Silvio Berlusconi in Rome in the afternoon. There was no way to arrive safely on time for the second meeting on a scheduled flight. The PSOE chartered a private plane for the day's transfers. José Blanco, the PSOE's organising secretary, delegated the flight's steward to one of his young collaborators: Óscar López. Trinidad Jiménez, the PSOE's head of international relations, came into play for that day's meetings. She was the one who arranged both meetings, and in both cases it was only at the last minute that José Bono was informed that he would be attending. Bono was still president of an Autonomous Community: the aim was to avoid the presence of Spain's ambassador at both meetings. They had learned from the lesson of Poland, which went well because of Ambassador Navarro's ductility.

Bono took his assignment very seriously in communicative terms as well. His small team of trusted staff in the Junta de Castilla la Mancha and he himself drafted documents for the implementation of the decision and public communication. It was not possible to work as a team because information leaks posed a serious danger of destroying the surprise factor. Bono drafts a speech proposal for the press conference. He also prepares the "argumentation for telephone calls". These were files with biographies of the world leaders and "data and arguments for the telephone conversation" (number of troops from each country, casualties suffered, elements of bilateral relations). Such a high quality of information was only possible with the cooperation of a few military personnel, a group that the future minister had historically taken care of.

18 April was a difficult day to manage. But the day before, things had not gone entirely smoothly either. On the morning of the 17th, Zapatero took the oath of office before the King. That day he had lunch at the Moncloa with his closest collaborators. Those he had not yet informed of the decision were told at that moment. He was worried about the effects that the "bold" decision would have on Spain's relations with the United States. The night before, after being sworn in as president by the Congress of Deputies, he had a late-night conversation with Javier Solana, who raised the risks of what he was about to do. Zapatero, now president and under the impact of Solana's impeachment, suggested over lunch on Saturday that it might be advisable to call President Bush that very afternoon to show him some deference. All the diners strongly discouraged him from making the call. If it had come this far, the surprise effect should be maintained and all leaders should be treated equally with a round of calls on the Sunday before the press conference. If the Americans knew in advance, they would leak it and express their displeasure.

In the early hours of the morning of 18 April, the new government was sworn in before the King. Still in Zarzuela, Zapatero ordered his foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to call Colin Powell and inform him of the decision. He is anxious. Zapatero made the trip from Zarzuela to Moncloa accompanied by Bono in his car. He did not inform him that he had entrusted Moratinos with the task of communicating with Powell. When they arrived at Moncloa at eleven o'clock in the morning, the Prime Minister instructed the Defence Minister to activate the decision and communicate it to the army so that it could be put into effect. Bono, with a keen sense of power and theatricality, not only responded "on his orders" but also squared up to him as if he were a military officer. Bono immediately convenes the Defence Chiefs of Staff at their headquarters in Calle Vitruvio in Madrid. He chairs the meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 12 noon onwards. He notes the disapproval of the JEMEs, but after a few interventions in which they try to argue technically their disagreement with the political decision, they comply with the order. The one who was most combative was the Army Chief of Staff, General Luís Alejandre. Bono fought with him and ended up imposing the decision on him, making it clear that it was not a matter for deliberation and discussion in the Board, but an instruction from the President of the Government. At that time Bono had already worked with the military and had already gained their trust to ensure that the training would be deployed immediately.

Back at the Moncloa, he learns that Moratinos has already communicated the decision to Powell, who has received it, reproaching the foreign minister for not fulfilling his commitment to continue discussing the matter during a visit to Washington scheduled for 21 April. At around 3 p.m. Bono called Rumsfeld, who already knew of the news from Moratinos' call to Powell. Rumsfeld, a temperamental man, flew into a rage. Bono has also reneged on his commitment of 5 April when they met in Washington and pledged his word that the Secretary of State for Defence would be the first person to know the news when the Spanish government decided to implement it.

The press conference was held on 18 April at 18.00 at the Moncloa. The King was informed of the news mid-morning (there was a high level of mistrust that he might pass it on to his US contacts) and the head of the opposition a few minutes before it was made public. A round of calls to international dignitaries was also made in the morning. Almost all of them got on the phone. One did not. Zapatero was accompanied by Vice-President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff, Antonio Moreno Barberá. The withdrawal has been fulfilled in political terms. By early May it will have been fulfilled in material and logistical terms. The fulfilment of the word given in an election campaign. The beginning of a difficult political relationship with the US government.
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