To Return Home
By Robert Fisk
19 March 2004
the three Spanish soldiers atop their troop transporter if they want
to stay or go home, and they roar with laughter amid the Iraqi traffic
"We just do
what we're told to do," one of them shouted down, amid more ironic
guffaws. But 28-year old Private Francisco - all beard and shades, who
wants to see his wife and nine-month old baby - was about as frank as
a Spanish soldier can be. "I think we should go," he said.
"It's clear that they're going to do something worse in Spain if
we stay here. I have a baby and a wife I want to be with. I want to
go - and forget it all."
course, is al-Qa'ida and back at their Najaf headquarters, the soldiers
never had much doubt about who bombed the Madrid trains. The only man
to suspect that Eta might have been to blame - he quickly abandoned
the idea - was the deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alfredo Fernandes
Benito, who is a Basque from Irun. "Eta had attacked civilians
before, but I couldn't understand how al-Qa'ida would do this,"
he said. "I could understand a military target, however much I
would disapprove of such a thing. But to attack civilians like that!
Why should Arabs have attacked Spain?"
It's not difficult
to understand the officer's puzzlement. His 140-strong unit - Spain
has about 1,500 soldiers in Najaf and the neighbouring city of Diwaniya
- is not part of the occupation force.
here on a civil support mission, helping farmers irrigate and fertilise
their land and help local justices set court systems - Lt-Col Benito
is a military judge in the Canary Islands - and once the people of Najaf
learnt of the Madrid bombings, they offered their condolences to Spanish
troops in the streets.
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa party and even
the more fanatic Islamic people, they all came here to see us at our
headquarters to say how sorry they were," Lt-Col Benito says. "There
are some small Sunni groups and they came too, and some of the party
people offered to postpone our normal Saturday meeting last week because
they said we were in mourning. We get on well with the people here.
But leaving? Look, I am a soldier and I obey my orders. I am a volunteer.
If I am told to go, I will go. We do not have opinions."
The Spanish soldiers
here all voted by postal ballot, before the Madrid bombings and the
colonel says he has no idea whom they might have favoured in the elections.
Western officials attached to the Spanish headquarters in Najaf have
fewer qualms when they are guaranteed anonymity.
"It's a blow
for us if they leave. It's a victory for al-Qa'ida, and we're really
worried it will leave a vacuum around us here," one says. "We've
come to rely on the Spanish. Officially I suppose they will be leaving
on 30 June, which is what their new prime minister says, but I'm told
they might stay until July or August if they're going to turn out the
It's not just the
vacuum that western civilians worry about here. The road to Baghdad
- Highway 8, the "road of death" - is now the scene of almost
daily assassinations of western aid workers, occupation officials, even
Red Cross personnel. The seven Spanish intelligence officers murdered
in Iraq just before the Spanish battalion arrived were gunned down on
the same stretch of road. Among the most recent victims was a former
American Marine helicopter pilot who had returned to Iraq with an NGO.
At night now gangs of armed men - 25 or 30-strong - roam the main highway
between Najaf and Kerbala.
Sanchez, who seems to exude more confidence after each disaster in Iraq,
claims that Spain's probable withdrawal is "clearly manageable",
that "it is not a significant military problem for the coalition
to be able to cover that area." But if any other nation withdraws
- the Poles, for example, who run the international division in central
Iraq - then General Sanchez's position will be a lot less "manageable".
The Cuscatlan Battalion
of the Brigada Multinacional Plus Ultra - the "International Brigade
Above All Others" - is based on the campus of Kufa university and
its canteen is plastered with posters of Grenada, Zaragosa, Huelva and
Malaga. They share their headquarters with 150 Salvadoran soldiers who
believe they will not be withdrawn - San Salvador might be outside even
al-Qa'ida's range - but the Spaniards in Najaf feel that the Madrid
bombings have brought them closer to their homeland. One of them lost
a close friend in the army - the trains exploded close to the Spanish
ministry of defence - and the soldiers had only a single Spanish international
television channel to tell them of the slaughter. "We used to think
of 'us' here and 'them' - our Spanish people - 'there'," Colonel
Benito says. "Now we think much more that 'here' is also Spain."
Copyright: The Independent.