Italy's belated decision to join the military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has brought fresh political woes for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with opposition to the bombing threatening to sink his fragile coalition.
Senior figures in the Northern League want an end to Italian air strikes only a week after they began following a personal plea by US President Barack Obama to Mr Berlusconi. Parliament will vote on the Northern League motion to this effect later today.
The xenophobic coalition partner says the bombing will provoke a wave of illegal immigration from Libya to Italy's southern coast, and is demanding Mr Berlusconi set a date to end the raids. Umberto Bossi, the pugnacious Northern League leader, had threatened to bring down the government if parliament was not allowed to vote on the issue. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, another Northern League figure, predicted the government would fall if the bombing was not stopped.
Mr Maroni also warned that the killing at the weekend of Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Arab, would "have enraged the Libyan dictator even more", and repeated claims that Gaddafi would as revenge, send a wave of up to 50,000 immigrants to Italy's shores. Italy has already seen nearly 30,000 migrants arrive from Tunisia this year.
Mr Maroni has criticised a parliament briefing given by the Defence Minister, Ingazio La Russa, in which he explained that Italian aircraft would take part in "targeted strikes" to prevent Gaddafi's forces from attacking civilians. "Bombs by definition are not 'smart'... a bomb destroys. What is smart is resolving a conflict without force and through diplomatic means," Mr Maroni said.
After 18 months of sleaze and corruption allegations against him, Mr Berlusconi has seen his parliamentary majority shrink away. Without Northern League support, he would have no majority. Mr Berlusconi sought to put a brave face on things yesterday. "I don't think there will be difficulties for the government," he said. "The League, an essential member of the coalition, has presented a motion and taken a position that is reasonable. We can vote on the whole thing or modify part of it, but the overall sense of the motion is something that is acceptable."
Italy is in the unusual position that some of the centre-left support military action along with the conservative Prime Minister, while the populist Northern League is vehemently opposed to such intervention.
Mr Berlusconi sought to play down threats of revenge by the Libyan dictator. Gaddafi has said he felt betrayed by the Berlusconi government, which until February had a friendship treaty with Libya. The deal, signed in 2008, opened the way for massive mutual investments. Gaddafi has threatened "bring the battle to Italy", following the air strikes.
Mr Berlusconi said Gaddafi's threats were different from the risk of reprisals posed by the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Italy was Libya's colonial ruler from 1911 until the Second World War. Because of its brutal colonial past there, it is more sensitive than other European nations to the political fallout from civilian casualties. Adding to Mr Berlusconi's difficulties, the premier had to return to court in Milan for the process that will decide whether he is indicted for a fourth trial, this time on tax fraud charges as a result of the Mediatrade inquiry into his broadcast empire.
The premier, 74, made "a brief, spontaneous declaration" in front of the judge at the closed hearing, his lawyer Niccolò Ghedini told journalists.
Before entering the court, the Prime Minister once again railed against the city's judiciary, which he claims has embarked on a political vendetta against him. "There is something which is not going in the right direction for a democracy when there are government leaders humiliated by having to spend hours in court while these important international events are taking place," he said.
Mr Berlusconi has been accused of 24 separate crimes over the years. "Just one of these blows would have been enough to eliminate from political life someone who is in politics because the people chose him with democratic elections," he said. He is involved in three ongoing trials – one for bribery of a witness; a second for tax fraud; and a third in which he is accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute.