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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 22:31 GMT
Berlusconi's balancing act
By Tamsin Smith
BBC News, Rome

It is not easy telling your best friend he is wrong, but Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has done just that.

Silvio Berlusconi and George W Bush, February 2005
Italy's friendship with the US has strengthened under Berlusconi
He rejected the US version of the shooting of an Italian agent in Iraq and gave the Italian reconstruction of events.

The prime minister said Italy had made all the necessary contacts and the car braked when it saw lights ahead.

Soldiers opened fire between 10 and 15 seconds, killing Nicola Calipari and wounding the hostage.

Mr Berlusconi, who prizes his friendship with US President George W Bush, called for "a frank and reciprocal recognition of eventual responsibility".

But he did not need to push further, as the bully boy approach had already been done for him.

'Reaping rewards'

On Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini appeared in parliament and demanded the US "identify and punish those responsible".

It's now increasingly important for Silvio Berlusconi to show the electorate that he can win something concrete from his commitment to [US President] Bush
Roberto Menotti,
Aspen Institute

A more belligerent stance than the prime minister would dare, but one necessary to mollify public outrage over the shooting.

This left Mr Berlusconi with both hands free to claim his special alliance is reaping rewards.

He brandished Washington's unprecedented invitation to Italy to take part in the investigation.

A senior Italian military official and several diplomats will join the probe which promises fast tracked results.

"[Mr Berlusconi's] special relationship with the White House isn't severely dented by this incident," said Roberto Menotti, a research fellow from the Aspen Institute.

"But it's now increasingly important for Silvio Berlusconi to show the electorate that he can win something concrete from his commitment to Bush, and this is what he's now trying to do."

US deaths 'equal'

Wednesdays speech was also a chance for Italy's leader to paint the bigger picture.

The government is still wary of claims made by the freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena that she was deliberately targeted.

Nicola Calipari's funeral
Italians are demanding answers over Calipari's death
She is now the plaintiff in a separate manslaughter inquiry led by Rome's chief prosecutor.

But there are fears this incident could fan anti-American sentiment in a country deeply opposed to the war and to Italy's involvement in Iraq.

Mr Berlusconi reminded his audience that, on the same day Nicola Calipari died, the US suffered four casualties "of equal stature and bravery" as Italy's own intelligence agent.

"We are certain that the sorrow of the Americans, who lost fours soldiers on the same day, is as great as ours. They know that a man who was on their own side has fallen, and who had all the qualities they admire in a man - ability and loyalty."

Mr Menotti said Mr Berlusconi was "trying to personalise the issues".

"First, talking about his phone calls with Bush, now trying to make American deaths and losses understandable to Italians in a personal way."

Walking a tightrope

Mr Berlusconi also tried to quell the widespread public perception that the shooting was a direct result of Italy's role alongside the US in Iraq.

"There is no relationship between the nationality of those taken hostage and their country's presence in Iraq," he affirmed.

There was no mention of rumoured ransom payments to free Italian hostages, an issue which has drawn criticism from the UK and the US.

Mr Berlusconi's first appearance in parliament since the shooting presented him with a difficult tightrope to walk, between his American interests and domestic pressure.

His political rivals, though, gained little capital from his awkward position.

Romano Prodi, leader of the opposition, even said he appreciated "the tone and measure employed by the prime minister today".

The prime minister finished his speech with a tribute to Italy's national hero.

He borrowed the words of cabinet undersecretary Gianni Letta who spoke at the funeral.

"Thank you, Nicola, you've given the idea of our nation back to the Italians," Mr Berlusconi said.

Cue applause and a standing ovation. From a distance this almost looked like political victory.

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