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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 April, 2004, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Tough times ahead for Berlusconi

By Tamsin Smith
BBC correspondent in Rome

The killing of Italian hostage Fabrizio Quattrocchi at the hands of his captors presents the Italian prime minister with a delicate balancing act.

Silvio Berlusconi backed the US-led operation in Iraq in the face of strong anti-war public opinion and has been struggling to keep his fractious coalition allies together.

There are 3,000 Italian troops currently serving in Iraq as part of a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission.

Silvio Berlusconi inspects Italian soldiers in Nasiriya
Mr Berlusconi visited Italian troops in Iraq on Saturday
There were no combat troops involved in the war itself.

The Italian parliament voted to extend the current mandate until June this year.

Although there are bitter political divisions over the war in Iraq, Italy has seen very little debate over justification for war of the kind that has raged in Britain and in the US.

There was, however, a massive outpouring of grief when 19 military policemen were killed in an attack outside their base in Nasiriya last November.

The nation came to a standstill for the funerals and united behind the role of their troops in Iraq.

Gung-ho image

Criticism of the mission in Iraq was briefly silenced.

But it is less clear how public opinion will react this time to the news of an Italian civilian death.

Mr Berlusconi has reiterated his resolve that the killing should not damage Italy's commitment to its mission in Iraq.

Either the public will rally round the flag... or the calls for Italy to withdraw its troops will escalate
Paolo Belucci
Political analyst
He said that the withdrawal of Italian troops was non-negotiable.

But some critics suggest it was this intransigent stance that provoked the group of Iraqi insurgents to kidnap the four Italians.

Details of how hostage Fabrizio Quattrocchi bravely challenged his kidnappers just moments before he was shot have been released by the Italian foreign minister, painting a gung-ho image which may succeed in rousing national sentiment.

But public opinion here is volatile.

"There are two possibilities," says Paolo Belucci, a political analyst.

"Either the public will rally round the flag, feeling that Italy as a nation is under attack, or the calls for Italy to withdraw its troops will escalate."

Making money

Maurizio, a barman in the centre of Rome said: "The November attacks on our soldiers were a warning this could happen but no-one listened.

"The government needs to withdraw our troops or things will get worse."

Lorena, a hotel manager, believes hostages knew the risks they were taking.

Fabrizio Quattrocchi
Quattrocchi, an ex-baker, was trained to guard oil pipelines
"I think it is important to know that although these Italian hostages are civilians, they went to Iraq for work, to make money," she said.

"But I'm worried what will happen next."

There were cross-party expressions of sorrow as initial news of the hostage killing was released, but signs of political sniping have already begun to re-emerge.

"Our policy on Iraq needs a radical change of direction," Piero Fassino, the leader of the Democrats of the Left party, told Italian radio this morning.

"Otherwise we run the risk of staying shut in a tunnel with no glimmer of light."

Recently many voices from the Left have been calling for Italy to remove its forces, especially in the wake of the Madrid terror attacks and the election of a party advocating the withdrawal of troops.

Mr Berlusconi will now have to grapple with the Iraq issue as the shadow of his renewed corruption trial hangs over him, and European elections loom on the horizon.

There are tough times ahead for the Italian prime minister.


SEE ALSO:
Italian hostage 'defied killers'
15 Apr 04  |  Middle East
Suicide blast wrecks Italian base
12 Nov 03  |  Middle East



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