Biden moves to bury cool US-Spanish relations
US Vice President Joe Biden, on the highest-level US visit to Spain since 2001, Saturday paid tribute to the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan as he sought to formally bury years of thorny ties with Madrid.
"My country is proud and grateful to be partners with all of you, with Spain, a partnership we are committed to strengthening and deepening in the years ahead," he said in an address to some 1,100 troops at a military base outside Madrid.
The troops of the Light Infantry Parachute Brigade, based at Parcuellos del Jarama, are to leave for Afghanistan in July to replace those returning from duty.
The Spanish government announced in February it was sending 511 more troops to the war-torn country, boosting its contingent with NATO-led forces fighting Taliban insurgents to nearly 1,600.
"I very much wanted to be here today to pay respect to such a group of warriors who stood side by side with American warriors in Afghanistan," Biden said.
"As NATO allies we are working together to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda, to fight insurgents who would destabilise not only Afghanistan but the region."
Biden, who arrived in Madrid on Thursday from Brussels, is the most senior member of the Obama administration to visit Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
He is also the highest level US official to come since president George W. Bush in 2001, when conservative prime minister Jose Maria Aznar was in power in Spain.
Relations between the Bush administration and Madrid plummeted when Zapatero, a socialist, withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq after he was elected to succeed Aznar in 2004.
Hopes had been raised in Spain of stronger US ties with the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House last year.
But Madrid suffered a diplomatic setback when the White House announced on February 1 that Obama would not attend an EU-US summit set for May in the Spanish capital.
Zapatero had made the summit a priority of his country's six months at the helm of the EU's presidency.
Biden earlier Saturday held talks with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on the war in Afghanistan, Iran, the Greek debt crisis and next month's G-20 summit in Toronto.
They also discussed US efforts to reach a new deal with the EU to allow US authorities to gain access to Europeans' personal data in anti-terrorism probes.
"I cannot think of a time when our relationship (with Spain) has been stronger, when there has been more mutual respect and more serious cooperation and partnership," Biden told reporters after the meeting.
On Iran, Zapatero said he agreed with Biden that "firmness is required so as to prevent an escalation of nuclear weapons...
"Iran has to know that is cannot go behind the backs of the international community, that it has to play by the rules of the international community," he told reporters.
Biden reiterated comments on Iran he made in a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday.
"Tehran faces a stark choice -- abide by international norms and rejoin the international community of nations or face further consequences and increasing isolation," he told reporters.
© 2010 AFP