Today Madrid, Tomorrow Rome?

What the foreign papers are saying.
March 18 2004 7:08 PM

Today Madrid, Tomorrow Rome?

Plus, ethnic violence returns to Kosovo.

A victory for terrorists and their appeasers or a triumph for democracy? The European press is still debating that question, four days after the Spanish Socialist Party's surprise victory in Sunday's general election.

On a continent whose population opposed the U.S.-led anti-Saddam campaign by a large margin, involvement in a bloody post-invasion Iraq is now seen to carry significant political risk. "Today Madrid, tomorrow Rome, and the day after tomorrow Warsaw," predicted Germany's Tagespeigel. "Those who cozy up to Bush too much will be punished by the voters." (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

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In Spain, the question is whether the new prime minister will carry through on his pledge to high-tail it out of Iraq. "I will listen to Mr. Bush, but my position is very clear and very firm. The occupation is a fiasco," Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told Spanish radio following his come-from-behind victory. Zapatero appears to have left the door open to a continued Spanish presence in Iraq, however: Spain would be willing to leave its 1,300 troops there under a NATO umbrella with the U.N. Security Council's stamp of approval.

An op-ed in London's Financial Times described a Spain that is "bitterly divided" over the Iraq question. The election "seems certain to change the geopolitical balance in Europe, with a vital country switching from a pro-U.S. stance to a far more critical position. Yet many observers fear that the question of whether terrorism is seen to have triumphed is likely to prove still more important in the long run."

Oddly enough, the same shadowy Islamist group that claimed responsibility for the attack—and then offered a Pan-European truce following the Socialist Party victory—also supports President Bush against the more "cunning" John Kerry. "We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections," wrote Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade in an e-mail to London's al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. "We know that a heavyweight operation would destroy your government, and this is what we don't want. We are not going to find a bigger idiot than you." (The group is thought to lack credibility by many Western intelligence agencies, especially after it tried to claim credit for last year's U.S. power blackout.)

Across Europe, news of the Spanish investigation into the bombings is still making front-page headlines. "Spain knows the names of the murderers," reported the left-leaning Prague daily Pravo. Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes quoted Interior Minister Stanislav Gross—a left-leaning Social Democrat himself—saying that Spain's decision to pull out of Iraq would only support the idea that goals can be reached through terrorism. The paper pointed out that only the Czech Communist Party—which has yet to fully disavow the pre-1989 totalitarian regime—has supported Spain's decision.

Meanwhile, the atrocity in Madrid has spurred debate in the Czech Republic about a proposed new anti-terrorism law that could give the country's intelligence apparatus the right to shut down mobile phone networks and seize the databases of all mobile phone operators. "Czechs have had plenty of experience of living in a police state, and any bill that proposes limits to individual liberties will inevitably lead to passionate debate," said Radio Prague.

Meanwhile, those nostalgic for old-fashioned, pre-9/11-style ethnic violence need look no further than NATO's old stomping grounds in Kosovo. The alliance is sending 1,000 more troops there to quell the worst clashes between Serbs and Albanians since the 1999 Kosovo War. Twenty-two people have died so far, the BBC reports. The violence began Tuesday, when three Albanian children drowned in the village of Caglavica in central Kosovo, allegedly after being chased by Serbs with dogs. A BBC press review reports that local media have fanned the flames, with each side focusing on attacks committed by the other side.

Belgrade radio station B-92 provides a blow-by-blow account of the violence, which includes a number of religious targets, such as mosques, churches, and monasteries. The Kosovo town of Obilic, near Pristina, has been completely evacuated of Serbs, the station reports. (B-92, a liberal outlet repeatedly yanked from the airwaves for airing dissident views during the Milosevic years, appears to be focusing on attacks on Serbs and Serbian churches.) The station described a tense but calm situation in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, as night fell Thursday.

The violence already appears to have spread beyond Kosovo. In Belgrade, acting in response to attacks on Serbian Orthodox churches in the UN-administered protectorate, about 100 youths—apparently a combination of an extreme nationalist youth organization and drunken soccer fans—overcame around 30 police guarding a 17th-century Ottoman mosque, setting fire to the building and looting it. "There is no need for this [mosque] to be in the middle of Belgrade," one 19-year-old told the local correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "We will raze it to the ground tonight."

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