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Italy mourns troops killed in Afghanistan

September 21, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: September 21
Italy on Monday held a state funeral for six soldiers killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul amid scenes of grief and confusion reflecting a country divided over the future of its military mission.

The deaths of the six paratroopers, their armoured column caught in an ambush in central Kabul last week was the worst single attack on Italian forces in Afghanistan, taking the country’s military death toll to 21

At one point the service in Rome’s Basilica of St Paul was interrupted by an unidentified man who seized a microphone near the altar, his voice echoing through the vast church, repeatedly shouting “Peace immediately” before security staff took him away.

Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, whose own comments on the war have fuelled a sense of ambiguity over Italy’s role as a major troop contributor, was heckled as he left the funeral by calls to bring the soldiers home.

Umberto Bossi, leader of the right-wing Northern League, a key component of the ruling-centre-right coalition, last week reiterated his view that Italy should pull out by Christmas. Entering the basilica, he said: “We sent them to Afghanistan and they returned dead.”

The only consistent voice on the conflict has been that of the Roman Catholic church which is strongly supportive of Italy’s role in what it calls an international peacekeeping mission.

Pope Benedict sent a message of support and condolences, while Archbishop Vincenzo Pelvi, who delivered the homily, said: “If a state is not capable of protecting its people from grave violations of human rights and the consequences of this crisis, then the international community is called upon to intervene.”

Despite Mr Bossi’s dissent and doubts reflected in Mr Berlusconi’s call for a “strategy of transition”, the government’s official line is that Italy will not withdraw unilaterally from its Nato mission where it is the fifth largest contributor. However it intends to bring home by Christmas some 400 to 500 soldiers who were sent as reinforcements for last month’s elections, leaving behind a force of some 2,600 men and women, mostly in the northwest around Herat.

Opinion polls indicate a majority of Italians want a withdrawal. Among political parties most dissent is on the radical left and on the extreme right, with the broad centre – in government and opposition – in favour of staying.

Even as the crowd applauded the six flag-draped coffins carried out of St Paul’s, mourners voiced their doubts over the true purpose of the war and whether it could be won. At the same time many acknowledged that a sudden withdrawal would be an unacceptable admission of defeat that would seriously damage Italy’s standing among its allies in Nato and the European Union.

“It is difficult to say whether this war is just or not. We are trapped in a nightmare tunnel,” commented one veteran, wearing his old purple beret and clutching the Italian flag. “We cannot wage a war like this. We are always on the defensive. There has to be a negotiated peace.”

Two elderly men disagreed. “There will never be peace in Afghanistan. What can Italy do? They are savages killing each other. It is hopeless,” said one.

Fabio Mini, a retired general and former Nato commander in Kosovo where Italy still has a large contingent of peacekeepers, said the real reason Italy was in Afghanistan was its commitment to Nato and the alliance’s need “in a moment of its own crisis” to preserve its cohesion.

This was why the US was constantly calling for more troop contributions, he said. “Do you really believe the Italian and Lithuanian troops are important?” he asked in a recent public debate. “No, what is important is that no one detracts from a Nato commitment.”

Italians also remain in the dark over the true cost of the war. The defence ministry told the Financial Times it was not able to give a figure for the total financial cost of the mission since troops were first sent in 2004.

PeaceReporter, an online news agency, says the Afghan mission has cost Italy €2.5bn in military expenditure, while it has spent just €40m on reconstruction.

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