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Spanish troops pull out of Najaf

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MADRID, Spain (Reuters) -- Spanish troops have left Iraq's holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, where rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is holed up with his militia, for their main base at Diwaniya, officials said on Tuesday.

The pullback appears to be a first stage in Spain's plan -- announced by new Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero earlier this month -- to withdraw Spain's 1,400 troops from Iraq.

"It was carried out today and was carried out according to plans, with all security measures and without any problems," General Jose Manuel Munoz told state radio.

A Defence Ministry source in Madrid confirmed the operation had been completed and Spanish troops were now all in Diwaniya.

Spain had about 200 troops at the al-Andalus base in Najaf with the bulk of its force at Diwaniya, officials have said.

No details were available on how the operation was carried out, but some 200 U.S. troops entered Najaf to protect the Spanish withdrawal and occupy their compound on Monday, a U.S. commander said.

U.S. forces backed by aircraft killed 43 Shi'ite militiamen in fierce overnight clashes near Najaf, residents and the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Socialist leader Zapatero won a surprise victory in a general election last month held three days after 191 people were killed in Madrid train bombings suspected of being carried out by a group linked to al Qaeda.

Reversing the Iraq policy of his pro-U.S. predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, Zapatero's first decision after taking office was to announce he was pulling Spanish troops from Iraq as soon as possible. The move has disappointed the United States.

"We are reassured to see that it (the withdrawal) is progressing and our troops are fulfilling the objectives we had set out," Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said in a television interview on Tuesday.

The government has refused to give a firm date for when the Spanish troops will be home, but a minister said most are expected back by the end of May.

Spanish troops -- part of an international force led by Poland -- have killed at least seven Iraqi insurgents in ambushes over the last few days in south-central Iraq.

The United States has started to take over responsibility for two provinces in south-central Iraq from troops from Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic which have begun to withdraw, the Polish army said on Monday.

Zapatero is due to address Spain's Parliament on the withdrawal later on Tuesday.

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