Suicide bomb kills 25 at Italian military base in Iraq

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The Independent Online

A car bomb devastated an Italian military police base in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah yesterday, killing 17 Italians and eight Iraqis in the most deadly suicide bombing in Iraq for three months.

A car bomb devastated an Italian military police base in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah yesterday, killing 17 Italians and eight Iraqis in the most deadly suicide bombing in Iraq for three months.

The dead were Italy's first casualties in the chaos of post-war Iraq, and the worst Italy has suffered anywhere since the end of the Second World War.

Nearly 3,000 Italian carabinieri and troops were sent to Iraq five months ago on what the Defence Ministry called "Mission Ancient Babylon". They have been serving under British commanders in the Shia-dominated south of the country and had previously experienced little trouble.

The attack took place at 10.40am local time at the carabinieri headquarters, a concrete block on the bank of the Euphrates. "A truck crashed into the entrance," a British military spokesman said, "closely followed by a car, which detonated." The front of the block was torn off by the blast and the remains of the building caught fire. Windows were shattered and houses damaged over a wide area. For hours afterwards a huge plume of smoke rose from the shattered block.

The attack was the bloodiest suicide raid since August, when 80 died at a mosque in Najaf in the explosion that killed the Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim.

It comes after a succession of lethal assaults, including the downing of two US helicopters, that have taken more than 40 American lives. Of the 17 Italians killed, 11 were carabinieri, four were army soldiers, and two were civilians, one of them a documentary film maker. About 80 Iraqis were wounded, including a one-year-old child, who suffered severe facial injuries and was not expected to survive.

"We go to bring peace," said a carabinieri general outside the corps' headquarters in Rome, "and this is the way they pay us back. Our eyes are swollen with tears. Our hearts are full of anger."

The Italian tricolour flew at half-mast on government buildings in Italy yesterday, and football fans at Italy's international match against Poland observed one minute's silence as the country mourned its dead.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said: "Our determination and the undivided determination of Italians is to work honourably with the coalition charged with sustaining the march of Iraq towards democracy. No intimidation must be allowed to remove our will to help that country." Italy's President Carlo Ciampi, describing the attack as "an ignoble act of terrorism", said: "We will continue to fulfil, together with our allies and with the United Nations, our role in the struggle against international terrorism."

Tony Blair also pledged that Britain would not be deterred. "We have got to stick with this and see it through," he said. In Italy, a number of opposition leaders argued that the time had come for a radical rethink. Fausto Bertinotti, post-communist leader of the Refoundation party, said: "Once again it is clear that war and terrorism go hand in hand.

"Let us show, therefore, all respect and solidarity with the families of the victims, but precisely in the name of that respect let us prosecute our political struggle against the war. The withdrawal of the troops is essential."

Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio of the Green Party said: "It is immoral to put at risk the lives of thousands of young Italians for Bush's preventive war.

"After this morning's attack, we hope that all will agree on the immediate necessity of withdrawing the troops from the Iraqi war." In the run up to the war in Iraq, Italy saw the blooming of one of Europe's biggest peace movements: more than a million people took to the streets of Florence demanding peace, and rainbow-coloured "Pace" (peace) banners fluttered from hundreds of thousands of windows across the country.

The movement originated on the left, but thanks to the Pope's vehement campaign against the war - echoed by mainstream Catholic media such as the weekly magazine La Famiglia Cristiana - it spread across the political spectrum to some in the centre-right governing coalition.

Mr Berlusconicommitted no troops to the war and his decision to send the carabinieri into Iraq in June was deeply controversial.