Robert Fisk talks to Spanish soldiers in Iraq

ASK 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 jam.

“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.”

“They”, of 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.

Officially, it’s 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.

“The Supreme 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 lights.”

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.

General Ricardo 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.”

Courtesy Josh Kirby

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media