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Aznar: War is precursor to peace

Aznar: Supporter of war on Iraq

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says his country is backing the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in an effort to help secure peace in the future.

The Conservative Party leader, who has come under intense domestic pressure over the pro-U.S. military stance his government has taken, defended the decision to go to war.

He said in a televised address Thursday: "At this point there is no role for neutrality, no role for indifference ... We have taken responsibility in the present and are working for international peace. We have taken this step."

Aznar said Spain, which along with the UK has been the U.S.' staunchest ally, has law on its side.

"We reaffirm our solidarity and commitment in the fight against terrorism, against weapons of mass destruction and against those nations which don't respect the minimum standards of international co-existence.

"We are acting in accord with international legality in its letter and spirit."

The prime minister said Spain would also take responsibility for helping in the humanitarian clean-up after the war dealing "efficiently to the needs of the people displaced by the conflict."

He added: "In the past few weeks we have discussed all the aspects of this crisis.

"Spain can, and must, take the responsibility in the recovery of civil life and stability in Iraq after the conflict. We want to say that Spain gives a lot of importance to the U.N. in that process which will be a difficult one but one of hope for Iraq and the whole region."

Spain has pledged 900 troops and three navy ships to a "humanitarian mission." Aznar has said they will not be used in offensive combat operations.

Two Spanish air bases, Rota and Moron, have been made available for U.S. use in their war effort. About 3,000 U.S. troops are typically stationed there under a bilateral defense agreement.

Officials have told CNN that both bases have been used in the buildup to the war, to move U.S. troops and equipment to the war zone.

In addition, Rota has been outfitted as a possible hospital location for U.S. wounded.

Aznar also referred in his speech to the Palestinian issue and the work towards trying to establish a peace agreement in the Middle East.

"We are going to put all our efforts into that," he said.

But he still faces opposition within the country.

In his address, Aznar recognized the criticism but said, "I don't ask anyone to renounce his position. All I ask is to leave some room for agreements in the future."

Just before his address, an anti-war group delivered petitions bearing an estimated hundreds of thousands of signatures, to the speaker of parliament.

Peace groups have staged mass demonstrations and members of Europe's largest trade union have downed tools in protest at the conflict. Opinion polls have consistently shown low figures for Aznar and his policy.

People again took to the streets staging protests involving thousands of Spaniards midday Thursday in Barcelona, Bilbao and Seville. A demonstration is planned for later Thursday in Madrid.

The leader of the Communist-led United Left coalition, Gaspar Llamazares, called the war "illegal" and urged Spaniards to protest in the streets later Thursday.

"This is an illegal war outside of the law and the United Nations," Llamazares said in an interview with CNN partner station CNN+, hours after the attacks began.

Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities already have seen huge anti-war marches on February 15 and March 15, drawing several million Spaniards overall to the rallies.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the head of Spain's largest opposition party, the Socialists, called an emergency meeting of his top aides for 8:00 a.m. (0900 GMT) in Madrid, shortly after he learned about the start of hostilities.

Spain is sending 900 troops and three ships to the U.S.-led coalition but Aznar has said they will not take part in offensive combat attacks.

-- Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman Contributed to this report

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