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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 August 2006, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Italy braces for new Mid-East test
By Mark Duff
BBC News, Milan

French soldiers in a UN military vehicle
Some extra French troops have already arrived in Lebanon
Italy is now spearheading efforts to put together a credible UN peace force for southern Lebanon.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi says Italy is willing, if asked, to lead the force.

But how much support does he have for his position at home?

President George W Bush used to talk of leading a coalition of the willing prepared to fight his war against terror.

Mr Prodi faces a somewhat different challenge - that of holding together a coalition of the unwilling long enough to see through his decision to commit Italian troops to the peace mission in southern Lebanon.

Italians turned out in their hundreds of thousands to mark their opposition to the war in Iraq.

That did not stop the then government of Silvio Berlusconi from committing Italian troops to the task of trying to rebuild security in Iraq after President Bush had declared - prematurely as it turned out - that the fighting was all but over.

Italian troops paid the price - most notably when 19 of them died in an attack on their base in Nasiriya, southern Iraq, in November 2003.

Turning point

Nasiriya was a turning point for Italy's view of its international role. For many Italians, it was the moment when Italy finally came of age.

As the bodies of the slain returned home, the Italian national flag - usually only seen when Italy's football team is playing well at major tournaments - took its place alongside the ubiquitous rainbow flags of peace on homes and offices across the land.

Italian troops carry coffins to aircraft, Iraq, November 2003
Nineteen Italian troops died in Iraq in 2003

Some 600,000 people queued to pay their respects to the fallen. Italy, it seemed, was growing up.

Mr Prodi must be hoping that he can build on this. History is to some extent on his side.

When Italian troops were last sent to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, they were widely praised.

The American and French contingents found themselves sucked into the mire of Lebanon's domestic and regional conflict and paid heavily for it in blood.

The Italians on the other hand concentrated on reassuring local residents traumatised by the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israel's Christian militia allies.

The Italians even found the time to teach the locals how to cook pasta. That experience still stands Italy in good stead.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, told La Repubblica on Tuesday that Italy was seen as even-handed by both Lebanon and Israel - and that was why both countries were keen to see it head the new peace force.

Questions remain

As Mr Prodi was reassuring the world that Italy stood ready to lead the new force, his foreign minister, the former communist Massimo D'Alema, was warning that Italy would not send any troops unless Israel stopped shooting and stuck to the ceasefire.

The military, too, have their doubts.

A former senior general said it did not make any sense to pull out of Iraq while at the same time committing forces to an ill-defined role in the cauldron of Lebanon that has already claimed the lives of 260 members of the current Unifil observer mission.

Mr D'Alema's comments in particular reflect the sensitivity of the issue for the governing centre-left coalition. It includes pacifists and communists who argued forcefully to get Italian forces withdrawn from Iraq.

Mr Prodi has been able to keep them onside by promising that the Lebanon mission would be clearly defined as one of peace, and that Italian troops would not attempt to disarm Hezbollah.

Any hint that they could find themselves marching into a conflict zone and his fractious coalition could unravel very fast.

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