Spanish troops would never again be sent on foreign missions “behind the backs of its citizens”, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain's socialist prime minister, said on Wednesday.

In a thinly-veiled attack on José María Aznar, his predecessor, and his unpopular support for the US military campaign in Iraq, Mr Zapatero said the Spanish flag had become “a symbol of peace” since his election in March last year.

Delivering his state of the nation address to Congress, Mr Zapatero said: “Spanish soldiers are where the Spanish want them to be,” in reference to peace-keeping missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Haiti.

Mr Aznar's support for the Bush administration almost certainly contributed to turning Spain into a target for Islamic fundamentalists, who blew up four commuter trains in Madrid three days before last year's election, claiming 200 lives and injuring thousands.

More than 20 men are being held in Spanish prisons awaiting trial, which is expected to get underway late this year or early in 2006.

Mr Zapatero admitted that his decision to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq - acted on immediately after his election - had created rifts with the US administration. However, he said a series of bilateral ministerial meetings had helped put the trans-Atlantic relationship back on track.

At the same time, he highlighted his government's “return to the heart of Europe”, in a reference to Mr Aznar's conflict with France and Germany over the US invasion of Iraq.

Mr Zapatero, whose most immediate problem is the growing clamour from the country's autonomous regions for more political and financial independence, promised reforms in this area by next year.

He also reiterated calls for cross-party unity in the fight against terrorism by al-Qaeda and ETA, the Basque separatist group that most observers say is trying to negotiate a truce with the current government without losing face.

“We wants to eradicate terrorism, which is the only blight left after 25 years of transition to democracy,” he said.

The address was immediately labelled as “empty” and “light on content” by the prime minister's critics, who seized on the lack of detail in controversial areas such as immigration, the government's uneasy alliance with Catalan nationalists, and secessionist moves by Basque nationalists. Many said he had painted an overly rosy picture of the economy, which is at risk of faltering because of falling competitiveness, weak investment, and an overheated housing and credit market.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the opposition Partido Popular, described the government's foreign policy as “inconsequential, third world-like and, in Europe, ruinous”.

Labelling the prime minister a “radical”, he said: “The only thing he has managed to do is ensure that no other country can count on Spain.”

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