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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 18:02 GMT
Italy shocked at soldiers' attack
By Irene Peroni
BBC News Online

The Iraq bomb attack has done more than killing an unprecedented number of servicemen from a country other than the US. It has also left Italy in shock, dismayed and incredulous at its first casualties in this mission.

There is a widespread belief in Italy that Italian servicemen engaged in post-war activities are perceived by local populations as friendlier and more approachable than other military forces - and therefore, they almost dare to hope, less of a target.

Carabiniere meets Iraqi
Italian soldiers are respected by many local people
TV reports often portray Italian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as playing with children or helping elderly people with their chores - a way of warding off the dangers of peace-keeping missions abroad.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi himself alluded to this image as he delivered an emergency briefing in parliament, paying tribute to the victims of Wednesday's blast.

"We feel proud of the courage with which our soldiers have managed to work to make the situation bearable for children, women and elderly people," he said.

Italian soldiers were "loved and respected" for their work by local people, he said, praising the traditional "humanity and bravery" of the armed forces.

But the opposition, as well as some media commentators, have long argued that the line between combat and peacekeeping missions is very thin.

Moral dilemma

Their argument is that deploying troops to carry out humanitarian tasks is a contradiction in terms.

"The Italian troops have been sent to Iraq on a humanitarian mission, but this fiction cannot be carried on, in the light of what happened this morning," Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of an Italian geopolitics magazine, Limes, told BBC News Online.

Today is not the time to divide parliament and the country in a political debate on whether to pull out or not
Piero Fassino
Opposition leader

"We can expect a very hard debate on the meaning of this mission."

The final effects of the tragedy on decision-makers is yet to be seen.

"The opposition will have to be careful not to exploit these deaths in parliament," Sergio Romano, a former ambassador and one of Italy's more prominent foreign affairs commentators, told BBC News Online.

"A withdrawal is difficult to imagine, because the United States would see it as a hostile, or at least unfriendly, move.

"The majority of Italians were against sending troops, so many will say 'we were right'. But there is also a moral problem - the troops are already there, so the disaster card should not be played: the opposition will have to act cautiously."

Party rift

Even opposition parties appeared split over whether troops should be pulled out, judging by the first reactions to the bomb's devastating toll.

Some politicians asked for Italy's contingent to be immediately pulled out, and recalled that the opposition, as well as the vast majority of Italians, had always opposed the deployment of troops in post-war Iraq.

Carabiniere at Italian field hospital - Baghdad
Italian troops are rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq
But Piero Fassino, the leader of the Democrats of the Left, was careful not to exploit the deaths to attack Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

"Today is not the time to divide parliament and the country in a political debate on whether to pull out or not," he said.

But another senior member of the same party, Piero Folena, called for the immediate withdrawal of the troops, revealing a rift within the party.

It is too soon to judge the strength of public and media reaction - but Mr Berlusconi's task in justifying the mission has just got much harder.

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