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STRATEGY DEBATE

Spain, Philippines defend decisions to pull out troops

MANILA -- Facing strong criticism, Spain and the Philippines yesterday defended their decisions to pull troops out of Iraq, insisting they had the right to do what was best for their countries.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia said the withdrawals ''encouraged" Islamic militants who have stepped up kidnappings and demands that more nations leave Iraq.

Downer made the remarks after the Al Qaeda-linked Tawhid Islamic Group threatened on a website Saturday to turn Australia into ''pools of blood" unless it pulled its troops from Iraq.

The Philippines withdrew its troops this month, a few weeks earlier than scheduled, after militants kidnapped and threatened to behead Filipino truck driver Angelo dela Cruz. After the withdrawal, dela Cruz was freed and returned last week.

Downer said that because the Philippines capitulated to the terrorists, more hostages have been taken in Iraq.

''Unfortunately these actions have encouraged terrorists to continue these threats, so now we are subjected, as the Italians are and the Poles and the Bulgarians . . . to further threats," Downer told Nine Network television. ''It's very important we send a strong message that we will not be threatened by terrorist groups."

The Philippines' national security adviser, Norberto Gonzalez, faulted Downer for linking the new threats to the troop withdrawal.

''It's very narrow-minded," Gonzalez said in a telephone interview.

Gonzalez added that instead of looking for scapegoats, Australia and other countries in the coalition that invaded Iraq should reexamine why the insurgency has intensified in recent months. He did not elaborate.

He said Australia should realize the predicament of the Philippines, which wanted to ensure the safety of its workers in the Middle East. About 4,000 Filipinos are contract workers in Iraq, and Gonzalez said they could do more good than the 51-member peacekeeping force that was withdrawn.

''Our condition is different," he said. ''We have over 1 million Filipinos scattered in the Middle East, and we need to safeguard them." He also cited his country's efforts to fight terrorism in Southeast Asia.

In Spain, Socialist Party spokesman Trinidad Jimenez yesterday said the government would ''never have accepted threats of a terrorist group" and described its withdrawal of troops earlier this year as fulfilling a campaign pledge based on longstanding opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.

Jimenez called Downer's remarks ''totally unacceptable."

''The Spanish government would never have accepted threats of a terrorist group," he said. ''Spain's troop withdrawal is part of an electoral promise and a firm conviction that . . . it was an unjust and illegal war."

Spain withdrew its 1,300 troops after Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government was defeated by the Socialists in elections March 14. The voting occurred three days after the Madrid train bombings, which killed almost 200 people and injured 2,000. Authorities have attributed the attacks to Islamic terrorists.

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