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Spain's role in Iraq to broaden

From Al Goodman

Aznar has faced widespread protests over his stance on Iraq.
Aznar has faced widespread protests over his stance on Iraq.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spanish troops in Iraq will soon become involved in security and policing tasks, broadening their role which has been limited until now to humanitarian efforts, the country's defense minister has said.

Spain will formally make the offer allowing its troops to undertake security tasks at an international conference on Iraq to be held Thursday in London, an aide to Defense Minister Federico Trillo told CNN on Tuesday.

The defense minister's announcement, at a Spanish air base in western Badajoz Province, came as his boss, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, was flying to the United States where he will meet Wednesday with President George W. Bush at the White House.

Amid widespread domestic criticism, Aznar's conservative government has been among the staunchest allies of the Bush administration on the war in Iraq. There has been speculation the Spanish troops in Iraq would take on a more muscular role.

On April 25, the prime minister's Cabinet -- which includes the defense minister -- approved an increase in the troop levels, boosting the current 900 Spanish troops in Iraq to 1,500. But the Cabinet did not specify what the additional troops would do.

The 900 Spanish troops currently in Iraq arrived after most of the major fighting was over. They have been confined to the port of Umm Qasr and nearby areas in southern Iraq, mainly staffing military field hospitals that are treating Iraqis, or helping to distribute food and other supplies.

Aznar has said they are on a "humanitarian mission" and would not be involved in offensive combat operations. But the addition of a security role will require the deployment of more troops with extensive combat training, the defense minister's aide indicated to CNN.

It will also potentially put them in harm's way, a sensitive issue in Spain where polls showed that 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq.

The planned change also comes ahead of closely watched local elections May 25, which are widely seen as the first test at the polls of whether the voters will support or rebuke Aznar's ruling Popular Party for his strong backing for Washington on the issue of the war.

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