Rome receives a right-wing message from the anti-state: The bomb sites are heavy with symbols for the eternal city. War is being declared on Italy's identity - Church, state, culture

IT WAS a strange sight, even for Rome in these days of tension. Three volanti, flying squad cars, had forced a grey Fiat Uno to pull over. A huddle of officers were closely questioning a small, irate blonde woman. Fingers on holsters, they ignored her protests as they leafed through identity papers. 'It's just a routine check,' the carabinieri repeated, but no one was fooled. 'I bet this is happening all over the country, to convince us they know who they are looking for,' said an onlooker. 'What a joke.'

But then Italy's most wanted criminal, since last Tuesday's 'night of bombs' which killed five people, has been a slight, fresh-

faced blonde, about 27 years old. She, and a male companion, were seen leaving a car in a sidestreet in central Milan. Minutes later 100 kilos of explosive blew apart the car, three firemen, the traffic warden who had summoned them and a Moroccan immigrant sleeping rough.

In a grotesque reflection of the bombing of Florence's Uffizi gallery, much of the nearby Pavilion of Contemporary Art was demolished, and rooms were damaged in the elegant Villa Reale, which houses its own modern art collection. Unlike the Uffizi, damage to the works of art was slight.

In Rome, less than an hour later, car bombs wrecked two ancient churches: the seventh- century San Giorgio in Velabro, tucked away in a narrow cobbled street by the walls of the Forum; and St John Lateran, the grandiose basilica used by the popes in their role as bishops of Rome.

Investigators yesterday requested a news blackout while they followed 'certain leads'. But few believe that real progress will be made in the inquiry, and even fewer believe that the culprits will ever be brought to justice. In the past 20 years, there have been eight unexplained bomb attacks, killing a total of 145 people. Suspects have been arrested and a handful found guilty, but not one important conviction is still standing today. As people look for an explanation after each new outrage, the great catch-all, 'to destabilise the state', is dusted down and pressed into use again.

The higher reaches of the government, groping for someone to blame, favour the Mafia. Nicola Mancino, the Interior Minister, repeated this week, as he did after the Uffizi bombing, that he believed Cosa Nostra was at the centre of the campaign of terror 'to distract attention from a battle with the authorities in which they have suffered heavy blows'.

'Rubbish,' says journalist and Mafia expert Nicola Lombardozzi. 'Each target in this campaign has been symbolic, and the bombs have not been calculated to cause maximum loss of life. The Mafia's targets are cruder; its methods much bloodier.'

Umberto Bossi, who has led his Northern League from separatist isolation into mainstream politics on an anti-graft, anti-southern platform, also believes that a more sophisticated hand is behind the campaign. 'The bomb at St John Lateran was to warn the Church to watch out - nothing is sacred. The bomb at San Giorgio was a warning to Rome itself.'

The site is indeed heavy with civic symbols for the eternal city. The velabrum was the marsh where Romulus and Remus were found, being suckled by the she-wolf. Above the church rises the Campidoglio, where the city's administration sits. The curving brick walls of the Forum pass not 100 yards away. The attacks on the Uffizi and the two galleries in Milan complete the 'message': war is being declared on Italy's very identity - Church, state, culture.

So the spotlight falls once more on the 'anti-state', an unholy alliance of right-wingers, the secret service and members of the banned (and supposedly dissolved) P2 Masonic lodge, all determined to derail the process of political change. Licio Gelli, the grand master of P2 in its heyday - and some insist it is still alive and kicking - has made no bones about his relations with generals and secret service officers.

Nor is the recent record of the internal intelligence service good. Its former head, Angelo Finocchiaro, who was forced to resign in the aftermath of the bombs, was already in trouble for misleading an investigation into the service's murky finances. One of his lieutenants, Bruno Contrada, is in jail for association with the Mafia; his uncle, Mario de Sena, a senior army officer, is in jail for collusion in organised crime.

Judge after judge investigating the massacres of the 'years of lead' from 1969 to 1984 threw up evidence of co-operation between the ultra-right and a sector of the secret service determined to save the country from veering too far to the left. General elections expected to usher in a new political class are planned for next year.

But that will prove of little consolation to the widow of Stefano Picerno, one of the firemen killed in Milan. They had been married 20 days when he died. And it is of little interest to Franco Pistolicci, who sits slumped in the shade of the Forum wall, surveying the shattered windows and crazed walls of his tenement block. 'I was born in that flat and my children were all born there. And now we've lost everything.'

Neal Ascherson, page 21