Italians hold march to demand freedom of kidnapped journalist

February 20, 2005|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - In an enormous, politically charged outpouring, tens of thousands of Italians marched through Rome yesterday to demand the freedom of a journalist kidnapped in Iraq.

The demonstration, which ended in the ancient Circus Maximus, site of chariot races more than 2,000 years ago, was boycotted by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The kidnapped journalist works for a Communist newspaper, and many people in the crowd were there to protest Italy's presence in Iraq as much as to plead for the release of reporter Giuliana Sgrena.

"I think this demonstration is useless and maybe even risky for the life of the journalist," said Roberto Calderoli, a minister in Berlusconi's center-right Cabinet. He added that he feared the march would turn into an anti-government, anti-U.S. rant.

That kind of sentiment did not go over well with many other Italians.

"What this extraordinary day shows us is the great spirit of solidarity that everyone feels," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said.

Though at least eight Italians have been kidnapped in Iraq, including a journalist who was killed, each new ordeal shocks the national psyche. Sgrena has been front-page news since her capture Feb. 4. On Wednesday, a videotape surfaced in which she begged for her life between sobs and calls on Italy to withdraw its troops from Iraq. About 3,000 Italians are based in Iraq, one of the largest foreign contingents.

Politicians have generally closed ranks in these cases, despite differences over Berlusconi's Iraqi policy. But with elections on the horizon, the debate has become sharper. On the day Sgrena's tape appeared, the Italian Parliament voted to renew its mission in Iraq, but only after an unusual amount of dissent.

Politics inevitably informed yesterday's demonstration.

"The liberation of Giuliana and the end of the war - these things are linked," said Gabriele Polo, editor of Il Manifesto, the paper on which Sgrena has worked for years, specializing in reports from the Middle East.

Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission and head of a center-left coalition, who probably will be Berlusconi's main challenger in next year's general election, said he was attending the demonstration as a "duty" that all Italians shared.

Calderoli, from Berlusconi's camp, retorted that opposition politicians were using a "tragic episode" to produce a huge campaign ad.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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