Spain to vote on sending troops to Lebanon

Spain's Parliament was expected to approve sending up to 1,100 troops to Lebanon in a vote Thursday, rejecting conservative criticism the prime minister is a hypocrite for pulling soldiers out of Iraq in 2004 and now making them available for another Middle East war zone. The vote coincided with a busy diplomatic day in the Spanish capital, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in town to discuss Lebanon and the Iran nuclear standoff with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani also holding talks with top Spanish officials including the prime minister. The conservative opposition Popular Party, which backed the war in Iraq while in power and sent 1,300 troops, is demanding that the Socialist government explain in detail the Spanish mission in Lebanon. If approved, Spain will be the third largest member of the force, behind Italy and France. The party wants to know how long they will stay, at what cost and if they will be assigned such tasks as disarming Hezbollah guerrillas that recently fought a 34-day war with Israel, devastating southern Lebanon. But the party has all but said outright that it will ultimately vote in favor of the deployment, saying it is Spain's duty and in its interest to act as a peacekeeper. Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso is to explain the mission, approved last week at a Cabinet meeting, in debate before the vote. Smaller opposition parties have also said they will vote yes, but are also eager to hear exactly what the Spanish force will be asked to do. But the conservatives are also using the occasion to try to exact a political toll on Zapatero, saying he depicts himself as a pacifist but has actually sent more soldiers abroad than any other Spanish premier and is not being up front with the Spanish people about how dangerous the new Lebanon mission is. Under Zapatero, Spain has sent troops or police to Haiti, the Congo and expanded an existing Spanish presence in Afghanistan. Spanish troops are also deployed in the Balkans. "He is not sending the troops on a peace mission but a bellicose one and he knows it," Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy said Monday. The Socialist government took power in March 2004 elections just days after Islamic terror bombings that many Spaniards apparently believed stemmed from Spain's troop presence in Iraq. The terror attacks killed 191 people. Zapatero opposed the war vehemently in the Spanish election campaign, calling it illegal because it lacked a UN mandate, and fulfilled a promise to bring home the Spanish troops shortly after taking power. The administration also enacted a law requiring parliamentary approval for overseas troop deployments. Then prime minister Jose Maria Aznar dispatched the troops to Iraq with consulting the legislature. Zapatero "put on a pacifist, down-with-war medal to win the elections," Popular Party number two official Angel Acebes said last week. Now Zapatero has taken off the medal "and shown that it is all a farse." The government counters that this new deployment is legitimate because it has a U.N. mandate and Israel and Hezbollah have agreed to a peacekeeping force. "It is an operation that falls within international law," Deputy prime minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Friday after the Cabinet approved the Lebanon mission.