Mar. 3, 2003. 01:00 AM
 Spain's Aznar takes big risk

Backs U.S., Britain on Iraq crisis Seeks louder voice for his country

MADRID— A shy former tax inspector has led Spain kicking and screaming into ground zero of the Iraq crisis, gambling that his avid support for the United States will help his country gain global clout.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says confronting the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction outweighs the risk of political oblivion for his party as he defies public opinion to back possible U.S. military action to disarm Iraq.

"We don't want anyone to tell us at some point in the future, `You failed to confront the problems the world had,'" Aznar said Friday at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "We are working for world peace and security.''

Aznar also wants Spain to become a prominent voice on the international stage to match its growing power and confidence. After decades as one of Europe's poor, backward states, Spain has undergone dramatic changes since longtime dictator Gen. Francisco Franco died in 1975, evolving into a stable democracy with the world's 10th-largest economy.

In a world redefined by terrorism since Sept. 11, Aznar is especially eager to see Spain — which for decades has battled Basque separatist violence it calls terrorism — emerge as a country with things to say and to offer. Aznar says Spain is strong enough to join the G-7 club of wealthy industrialized nations.

"Spain must play in the first division," Aznar said in a recent radio interview.

As Aznar digs Spain deeper into the U.S. camp, the silence from Aznar's conservative Popular Party is deafening: it refrains from griping, but there's no praise either.

Polls show more than 80 per cent of Spaniards oppose war even with United Nations backing. Aznar, 50, has said he won't seek a third term in general elections scheduled for 2004.

Along with Britain and the United States, Spain has co-sponsored a draft U.N. resolution paving the way to war. About the only thing missing is a Spanish commitment to provide troops, ships or planes if war does break out, and Aznar doesn't rule it out.