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Italy's Mr Clean keeps politicians guessing

Is Italy's champion corruption-busting magistrate about to enter politics, and if so when and with whom?

Politicians from all sides have been courting Antonio Di Pietro in a flurry of private meetings. Everybody, it seems, wants to be friends with the man who brought down the old political order with his anti-corruption investigations and is now regularly named Italy's most popular public figure. The man set to become the country's next prime minister, Romano Prodi, offered him lunch on Friday, hinting that a ministry could be his if he wanted it. The outgoing premier, Lamberto Dini, and the leader of the reformed neo-fascist National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, are queuing up for appointments this week.

And yet Mr Di Pietro has remained enigmatic. Yesterday he fired off an ill-tempered statement to the press denying he was holding specific negotiations with anybody. He added: "It is my intention to take an independent role in politics, which I will announce at a time and in a way that I alone will decide. Nobody is authorised to speak on my behalf."

Mr Di Pietro has to make one big decision before Mr Prodi forms his government and takes office sometime in mid-May: whether to join the winning centre-left Olive Tree coalition and participate fully in government, or - as a conservative by nature - to stay independent and leave open the option, for example, of challenging Silvio Berlusconi for the leadership of the centre-right Forza Italia party.

One of Italy's most perceptive commentators, Eugenio Scalfari, suggested yesterday that Mr Di Pietro wanted to be the modern-day equivalent of the ancient Roman tribune of the people, setting himself up as a supreme moral force independent of the political class. But, Mr Scalfari noted, the tribune's role was eventually usurped by Emperor Augustus and could be again by Italy's more unscrupulous political jackals. It remains to be seen if Mr Di Pietro is up to the challenge.