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Sadr rewards pullback Spain

Baghdad/Madrid, April 19 (Reuters): Radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today called for a halt to attacks on Spanish troops in Iraq because Spain was pulling out of the US-led occupying coalition.

“The attacks on Spanish troops should be stopped since they are returning to their country and as long as they don’t carry out aggressions against the Iraqi people,” said a statement from Sadr’s office in the southern city of Najaf.

Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia has clashed with foreign troops in several Iraqi cities in recent weeks, including Spanish forces based around Najaf. The American military has vowed to capture or kill Sadr, who is wanted in connection with the murder of a moderate Iraqi cleric in Najaf, and destroy his militia.

US forces poised outside Najaf said today they would allow time for talks before any attempt to enter the Iraqi holy city to seize Sadr — a move that could spark new unrest.

Spain’s new government pledged today to remain at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism despite its surprise decision to pull the country’s troops from Iraq as soon as possible.

However, defence minister Jose Bono announced that the process of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq has begun and will be completed quickly. “The process has started and will be completed rapidly.”

He did not make clear if he meant Spanish troops were already starting to leave Iraq or simply that new Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had started the process by giving the order to pull out the troops as soon as possible.

US President George W. Bush expressed regret today to Zapatero, over his decision to withdraw 1,400 troops from Iraq and warned Madrid against taking further actions that could give “false comfort to terrorists”, a White House spokesman said. The response from European capitals was muted with some policymakers expressing support or respect for Zapatero’s move. Members of Zapatero’s government defended the Socialist leader’s decision, announced yesterday.

“That does not mean that Spain is giving up its commitment to the stability and democratisation of Iraq,” foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in Madrid.

Bush picks Iraq envoy

Bush has tapped John Negroponte, the top American diplomat at the UN, to be his ambassador to Iraq after sovereignty is restored on June 30.

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