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Italy Bows Out Of Bush's Coalition

by Paolo Pontoniere

Italy's Berlusconi Problem

(PNS) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi didn't wait for the result of the joint American-Italian probe into the killing of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari, and the wounding of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, before announcing the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq. Combined with a hastily arranged Ukrainian departure and a planned Romanian retreat, Berlusconi's announcement shatters the so-called Coalition of the Willing, rendering the Iraq occupation a de facto Anglo-American operation.

Berlusconi made his announcement carefully, so as not to embarrass and further infuriate his American allies. Withdrawal will start in September and take place only after The Iraqi parliament nominates a national government. Still, the announcement makes it very difficult for Berlusconi to backtrack. He was already facing political difficulties. First, the Italian mission in Iraq was recently extended to next June only because the center-left coalition abstained. Berlusconi also is now sandwiched between two elections, the regional polls of April 3-4 and the national election of June 2006.

Varied factors convinced Berlusconi to unhitch his political destiny from Washington's fortunes in Iraq. First is the obvious fallout from the Calipari-Sgrena shooting. Berlusconi found himself on the defensive and isolated. He was attacked by the left and by the center-left coalition, and some of his key political partners also undercut him.

While Berlusconi reacted with guarded caution to the incident, calling U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler to Palazzo Chigi for what was seen as a ceremonial "eye-to-eye" meeting, Italy's Foreign Minister Giancarlo Fini -- the vice-prime minister and leader of Alleanza Nazionale, Italy's second-largest political formation -- was spewing fire at the House of Representatives, denouncing the Calipari-Sgrena incident.

Fini insisted that Italy not only had the moral obligation to bring back its kidnapped citizens, but also to not reveal the kidnappers' identities. Fini went further, stating that the "Italian government will not hand over hostages to the Americans." While he was holding forth in parliament, his party's youth organization was planning a street protest right in front of the American embassy in Rome, marking one of the first times in many years when youths from the left and the right found themselves on the same side of the barricade.

Polls taken in the days following the Sgrena incident showed that 70 percent of Italians did not believe the Americans were telling the truth and did not trust the U.S. investigation. A similar percentage believed Italian troops should leave Iraq. Another poll taken by La Stampa, one of Italy's major daily newspapers found that if elections were held the government would be voted out of office.

Berlusconi, therefore, was in danger of coming off as a lackey of the Americans. The risk was greatly increased by reactions from the United States, where neo-conservatives accused the Italians of financing Sunni terrorism by agreeing to negotiate with Sgrena's kidnappers.

A flurry of bilateral contacts -- telephone calls from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Fini, from Bush to Berlusconi, and letters from Bush to Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Italy's president -- failed to convince the Italian public that the United States was accepting shared responsibility for the incident. Berlusconi had to recall Ambassador Sembler to Pallazzo Chigi two more times, and only then did the United States agree not to leave its ally hanging by the thumbs and to name a joint Italian-American investigating commission.

By then the damage had been done. The United States was irritated. The Italian left, though not through its own merit, was finally able prove to the Italian public that the Iraq coalition was just a masquerade for the unilateral U.S. bid to dominate Middle East politics.

"The bilateral (Italy-U.S.) commission is a Pyrrhic Victory," says Giovanni Russo-Spena, House Speaker for Rifondazione Comunista, Italy's fifth largest political force. Recalling the Cermis case -- when a U.S. fighter jet severed the cables of a mountain lift, killing 20 persons -- Russo-Spena said the joint probe will not produce any relevant result, "but it gives Berlusconi the possibility to regain the ground he was losing to Fini."

Besides the shakiness of U.S.-Italian relations over Iraq, additional domestic factors led to Berlusconi's decision to withdraw the troops. There's turmoil on his right. Alleanza Nazionale, Fini's party and Berlusconi's main ally, recently split into two fractions, with Alessandra Mussolini -- Benito Mussolini's granddaughter -- taking the helm of Alternativa Sociale, a more rightist group. Mussolini's party was recently accused of falsifying signatures to get on the ballot and barred from taking part in Lazio's regional election -- Lazio is one of Italy's 21 states -- by the president of that region. On the eve of nationwide local elections, this could spell big trouble for Berlusconi's coalition. The announcement of the troop withdrawal provides a convenient popular distraction.

To outflank his center-left opposition, Berlusconi had to distance himself from the United States. As a result, he is enjoying a rise in his personal ratings. Withdrawing the troops from Iraq may allow him to tap further into popular good will, depriving his center-left opponents of a fortuitous advantage.

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Albion Monitor March 16, 2005 (

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