Iraqi bombing sends Italy into furious debate

Prime minister pleads for unity as pressure builds to pull troops out

November 13, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - For weeks, Italian newspapers and television programs have run happy reports on Italian soldiers stationed in the quiet Iraqi south, where they gave candy to children, built schools and fixed roads. The Italian contingent seemed relatively safe, relatively out of harm's way.

That idyllic picture came crashing down yesterday morning, when insurgents blew up the Italian military headquarters in Nasiriyah, killing at least 18 Italians and plunging the country into shocked debate.

The blast was the single deadliest attack on troops in the U.S.-led coalition since the war began, and these were Italy's first hostile deaths in Iraq. After the United States and Britain, Italy has now lost more troops in Iraq than any other nation in the coalition.

The bombing showed that the Iraqi opposition is not confined to Baghdad or the Sunni Triangle north and west of the capital, and that the insurgents are attacking anyone who is - or is perceived to be - the United States' partner in Iraq.

For Italians, it was an awful awakening.

"An ignoble act," is how President Carlo Ciampi condemned the bombing. Flags were ordered lowered to half staff across the nation. Parliament, union meetings and soccer games observed a minute of silence.

Despite pleas for unity from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the nation was immediately locked in debate over whether to pull the plug on the 2,700-strong Italian mission in Iraq - a decision that would have profound repercussions for the Bush administration, which has been trying to get other nations to contribute forces to help stabilize the nation.

"The worst mistake we could make would be to withdraw from Iraq now," Berlusconi told Parliament, where he and Defense Minister Antonio Martino were called to report on the bombing. Berlusconi and other senior members of his government pledged to stay the course and to keep the Italian contingent in Iraq, where they have been since June.

"Only by continuing the mission in Iraq will the sacrifice of these men not be in vain," Martino said.

Some members of the center-left opposition coalition, however, were calling for the troops to come home.

"The length and nature of the Iraqi mission must be reviewed," said coalition leader Francesco Rutelli, although he stopped short of urging withdrawal: "This isn't the moment."

Sen. Cesare Salvi, a Rutelli coalition partner, was more blunt. "Fresh, unnecessary deaths must be avoided," he said.

Italians have long been ambivalent about sending their army into action abroad. Although the Caribinieri police and the army's crack Bersaglieri infantrymen, distinctive in helmets topped by plumes of black feathers, have frequently participated in peacekeeping missions, it has always been under the clear guise of a United Nations, European Union or NATO mandate. The missions have usually been dedicated to humanitarian assistance, police training and medical care, rather than combat. With polls showing a majority of Italians opposed to the war in Iraq, it doesn't take much to give them cold feet about the Italian presence there now.

"This will certainly bring about some serious soul-searching about what we should be doing," said Franco Pavoncello, political scientist at Rome's John Cabot University.

Pulling troops out of Iraq would require approval from Parliament - where Berlusconi continues to hold a decisive majority - so such a move seems unlikely now. Over time, however, if pressure builds, momentum for a withdrawal could build, analysts said.

"The government is sort of trapped," Pavoncello said. "It cannot move out now. But on the other hand, this is not the kind of situation Italians want to find themselves in. I don't think this is a society interested in dealing with this level of pressure."

In the aftermath of the bombing, Italy's Interior Ministry placed the nation on alert, fearing an attack at home. Over the past couple of years, a number of people alleged to have ties to al-Qaida have been arrested in Italy, and last month an audiotape surfaced purporting to be the voice of Osama bin Laden issuing a threat against Italy and other nations allied with Washington.

Berlusconi said yesterday's carnage was, essentially, inevitable, given the string of attacks on U.S. allies in Iraq, as well as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have sought to maintain independence from the occupation and its forces.

"We will feel no intimidation," he said. "It was our duty to participate, and we are fulfilling our duty."

But as national television broadcast smoky, chaotic images from Nasiriyah nonstop, Ernesto Pallotta, a sergeant in the Caribinieri, offered viewers a forceful disagreement.

"After these deaths in Iraq, we have to say `stop' to the mission," he told RAI television in Rome. "The attack has touched us even more because we know that the Caribinieri were ... appreciated by the local population. Because of the benevolence of the population, we thought we would not be a target."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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