MADRID -- Ten years have gone by, and Javier Couso is still fighting what he calls the “lies” about the Iraq war that killed his brother, José Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish TV network Telecinco.
He “was against the war, as were a vast majority of Spaniards, but he was a professional, and he went to cover it,” said Javier.
José Couso died April 8, 2003, at Baghdad's Hotel Palestine, under fire from an American tank. The shelling also killed Reuters’ Taras Protsyuk, of Ukraine. For the decade since, Couso’s family has fought for justice against the three American soldiers responsible for the attack on the hotel, which Washington knew housed the international press. To that end, Couso’s brother successfully petitioned the National Court to open criminal proceedings against the three soldiers -- an unprecedented move. The national court issued arrest warrants in 2011, charging the soldiers with murder and crimes against the international community. The U.S. has said its soldiers were responding to an enemy attack.
Prior to Couso’s death, the Iraq invasion was opposed by 91 percent of Spaniards, according to a government survey. Indeed, in March 2003, the war was considered the country’s second-largest problem, after terrorism by the ETA (the Basque separatist group), according to an opinion poll by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas.
After Couso’s death, Spain’s citizens turned angry, with the fallen journalist becoming a symbol of that war’s horrors. The nation’s indignation was reflected in the chant “No a la guerra! (No to war!),” which reverberated in Spanish streets during hundreds of protests against Spanish participation in the intervention.
Despite all this, José María Aznar, then the leader of Spain and head of the Popular Party, which once again controls the national government, supported the U.S.-led invasion. With its temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, Spain sought to find legal grounding for the intervention. Once the invasion had begun, Madrid sent up to 1,300 soldiers to Iraq. But the unexpected victory of socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in the March 2004 presidential election changed Spain’s position. Zapatero had promised to withdraw troops if he won, and it was his first decision after assuming power in April 2004. A survey published then by the newspaper El Mundo indicated that 80 percent of citizens supported an exit from Iraq.
But it was too late for José Couso.
“The Iraq war and my brother’s death are two blunders that the government has attempted to justify with lies,” said Javier Couso. With the slow progress in judicial proceedings, the government is “trying to forget these embarrassing errors … because they are terribly inconvenient,” he said.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a leading figure in the Popular Party, said he now believes the war was a mistake. It “was justified by the nonexistent threat of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, and it failed in its attempt to impose democracy in the Middle East,” he said. The invasion “was not a wise move, because the country is worse now than before, hounded by terrorism and under the influence of Iran, the biggest threat in the region.”
Vidal-Quadras is also vice president of the European Parliament and a member of the delegation that manages the organization’s relationship with Iraq. Speaking from Brussels, he lamented that the conflict had “made it more difficult for the EU to develop a united foreign policy.” The deep division between what he called “the old Europe” of France and Germany and “the new Europe” of Spain, the UK and Poland, reveals a European “before and after,” according to Vidal-Quadras.
In Spain, the scars from the war are even deeper, and they haven't healed. Ten years after, the Popular Party and many of its leaders from 2003 have returned to power. Mariano Rajoy, the current prime minister, was the “number two man” in the party during the Iraq operation. Although the majority opinion in the Popular Party about the war agrees with that of Vidal-Quadras, no high-ranking PP official has risked criticizing Spain’s motivations for participating in the intervention. Contacted by HuffPost, neither the FAES, a think tank led by Aznar, nor the party’s leadership would comment.
Not even the majority opinion of Spaniards, who were always opposed to the conflict, has changed the perspectives that some previous government officials still hold. The then-ambassador of Spain to the U.N., Inocencia Arias, still defends the Iraq invasion, saying it was as legal as the international intervention in Kosovo, in the Balkans -- which did enjoy Spanish public support.
“Governments cannot let themselves be carried away by public opinion. If they did, Spain would have the death penalty right now,” said Arias, now retired.
Aznar’s reasons for joining the U.S.-led war are widely accepted as valid among the conservative party’s ranks, where he still commands great respect.
“Spain isn’t France,” argued Vidal-Quadras. “France is a great European power, and it feels very sure of itself. Spain, unfortunately, is a middling power, and Aznar believed that by allying himself with Bush, he would get to play in the big leagues.”
Where the politician sees an alliance, José Couso’s family sees submission. “The Iraq war hasn’t changed a thing," said Javier Couso. "Zapatero may have withdrawn our troops, but the two major parties (the PP and the Socialist Party) keep paying tribute to the United States, as if they were colonies. Both parties have been complicit in U.S. abuses in Iraq, and in other places since.”
As he prepares concerts and other tributes supported by numerous artists and pacifists, Javier Couso lamented a lack of support from U.S. and Spanish governments for his cause. Spain and the U.S. have agreements of judicial cooperation, and Interpol has orders by Spanish courts to detain the three American soldiers who shelled the hotel. But that has not happened.
Couso said he believes that “nothing will change,” and that the injustice of his brother's death, like the PP’s mistake in supporting the Iraq war, will persist, with no amends.