Italy mourns its dead as war finally hits home

Carabinieri are honoured in Rome and Naples

As Italy awaited the arrival of coffins bearing the remains of its 19 dead in the Nasiriyah bombing, the nation struggled to come to terms with the fact that its forces, sent to Iraq to keep the peace, were now in the thick of a war.

Flowers and messages were placed outside police stations, newspapers announced the launch of fund-raising campaigns for orphaned children of the dead soldiers, yet the tragedy brought signs of a radically changed mood. A bickering government suddenly discovered a need to be united.

The centre-left opposition discovered restraint, declining to make political capital out of the tragedy. And a population largely opposed to the war in Iraq discovered some old-fashioned notions. They were there in the messages tied to the flowers outside the carabinieri headquarters in Rome: "Heroism and valour of the carabinieri who have fallen for peace"; "I am proud that Italy has valorous men. Thank you, I am proud"; "Right and glorious is the country that sacrifices its heroes."

It may not last. By the time the dead are buried in a state funeral, Italy's distaste for military risk may have returned. But yesterday, in a week when Italy suffered more wartime fatalities than in the past 40 years and 50 more carabinieri flew to Iraq to replace their fallen and traumatised comrades, a changed mood was palpable across the country. Rather than a raucous demand for withdrawal, a snap opinion poll for La Repubblica newspaper, carried out after the massacre, indicated that most Italians were in favour of staying in Iraq.

Augusto Minzolini, a journalist with La Stampa newspaper, said: "There is a spirit of national pride in the air which is rare to find in this country. The public is showing a strong emotion of solidarity with the military forces. Instead of blaming the government, there is a consciousness of sacrifice that has not been found in Italy before."

Fabrizio Cicchitto, an adviser to the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, admitted: "Until today, many of us did not realise we were a country at war. Perhaps this drama will wake us up."

Those who met Mr Berlusconi after the bombing said the Prime Minister seemed profoundly shocked by the tragedy. Mr Minzolini of La Stampa said: "An optimist by nature, he is genetically ill-prepared to deal with tragedy."

But this particular ill wind promises to bring him some immediate good. In a country perennially unhappy about its image abroad, it has boosted Italy's international prestige, with the front pages of the world's newspapers cleared for coverage of Wednesday's atrocity. The attack also prompted a telephone call from President Bush to express "the closeness of the American people to the Italians" in their hour of grief.

It has also delivered a salutary jolt to Italy's coalition government, which is threatening to disintegrate in January at the end of Italy's rotating EU presidency, and which has been tearing itself apart since poor regional election results in the spring. Those who believe Mr Berlusconi has a golden opportunity include political opponents. Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, said: "At last Berlusconi must start doing real politics. As president of the EU, he must use his great friendship with President Bush to look for a way to bring Europe and America together on Iraq. The great risk of the Iraq war is that it splits the West in two. Europe needs to find a new unity alongside the United States, and Berlusconi is in a perfect position to do it."

And that means Italians remaining in harm's way? For now, against the odds, the Italians are saying yes.

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