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Italy says to keep troops in Iraq despite deaths
( 2003-11-13 08:58) (Agencies)

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed Italy would keep troops in Iraq to help the Americans despite Wednesday's bombing, which killed 18 Italians in the armed forces' biggest single loss of life since World War II.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi takes a moment while addressing parliament in Rome after the attack on the Italian military police compound in Iraq.   [AP]
The suicide attack looked likely to stoke anti-war sentiments in Italy, where some opposition parties demanded its 2,300 troops be withdrawn. But Berlusconi, a staunch ally of President Bush, said Rome should stand firm.

"No intimidation will budge us from our willingness to help that country rise up again and rebuild itself with self-government, security and freedom," he told the Senate in an address broadcast nationwide after the attack in Nassiriya.

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said the Italian dead were 12 Carabinieri military police, four soldiers and two civilians -- Italy's highest military death toll since World War II.

Berlusconi urged Italy and its leaders to remain united.

"If there ever was a day when controversy should be silenced and when all Italian citizens should show solidarity with those who have taken on the lofty task of defending the values of our democracy, then this is the day," he said.

Flags were lowered to half-staff across the country and many cities declared Thursday a day of mourning. It was the first fatal attack on Italian forces since they were sent to Iraq in June to help stabilize the country.

Pope John Paul, who opposed the Iraq war, expressed his "most firm condemnation" for what he called a "vile attack" against a mission of peace. Bush sent condolences, saying he "appreciated the sacrifices."

A car bomb ripped through an Italian military police base in the Iraqi town of Nassiriya on Nov.12, 2003, killing at least 18 Italians and nine Iraqis in what appeared to be a suicide attack. [Reuters Graphic] 
Martino told the Italian parliament initial evidence from Iraq indicated that fighters loyal to deposed leader Saddam Hussein were behind the blast. But he echoed Berlusconi in his commitment to keep troops in Iraq.

Berlusconi said the losses were felt by the whole nation.

"But we also feel pride for the courage and humanity with which our troops...have worked and still work to make the situation tolerable for children, women, the elderly and the weak who live in that martyred region."

Some opposition leaders said they would reserve comment until mourning was over, but others called for the immediate withdrawal of troops.

"They were sent to an Iraq in flames because the government wanted to do a favor for the Bush administration," said Pietro Folena of the Democrats of the Left. "Now the Italian soldiers must come home. It's the only right thing to do at this moment."

Despite popular opposition, Berlusconi lined up behind Washington as Europe split on the issue. Parliament approved sending troops to Iraq after Baghdad was occupied.

In Livorno, home base for the slain Carabinieri military police, one shopkeeper summed up the reaction of many.

"To leave Iraq now seems like the right thing to do," she said. "But abandoning the Iraqis would be cowardly."

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