Italian Sympathy for Iraqi Resistance Dwindles

ROME – Without being exactly encouraging, the Italian peace movement had been sympathetic toward the resistance in Iraq. Not any more.

The Stop the War coalition, which brings together several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is still calling for "withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq." It wants to "avoid leaving the Iraqi people alone under the arbitrary rule of the occupying forces," it says in a press statement. But Italians are now shocked by the abduction of aid workers and journalists.

Two Italian women aid workers, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, working for the Italian non-governmental organization Un Ponte Per. . . (A Bridge To. . .) were kidnapped from their office in Baghdad Tuesday. An Iraqi man and woman in the office were also abducted.

The Italian women, both 29, were coordinating delivery of drinking water to Fallujah and Najaf.

Peace activist and freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped in Iraq Aug. 20. He was killed six days later when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi rejected the kidnappers’ demands to pull Italian troops out of Iraq.

Italian civil society reacted strongly to the abductions then and now. On Wednesday, as after the earlier abduction, people have been coming out on the streets with rainbow colored flags, this time seeking peace moves from the militants as much as the occupation forces.

A vast majority of Italians opposed the invasion in March last year. About three million joined the antiwar demonstrations Feb. 15, 2003.

Despite the opposition, Berlusconi’s government sent Italian troops to Iraq in May last year. About 3,000 Italian soldiers are there currently.

An opinion poll in May this year by the group Simulation Intelligence indicated that 69.3 percent Italians oppose the occupation. About 2.5 million peace flags have been sold in Italy since late 2002.

Civil society responded strongly also when four Italian guards working for a U.S. security company were kidnapped in April. One of them, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, was killed.

About 10,000 gathered in front of the Vatican April 29 after the kidnappers asked people to demonstrate against the Berlusconi government. The other three hostages were released June 8 after 56 days of detention.

After the latest abductions UN Ponte Per. . . said in a statement that the two activists "are in Iraq to help the Iraqis," and appealed to the kidnappers to release them immediately. "We beg you to consider the untold damage your actions are inflicting on the cause of peace and of the Iraqi people," it said.

UN Ponte Per. . . has been providing humanitarian aid to Iraqi people since 1992. It has been working mainly with Iraqi staff, supported by a few Italian coordinators. The group stayed on through the invasion last year.

"We do not want to leave the Iraqi people alone. We call for the restitution of sovereignty to Iraqis," president of the group Fabio Alberti told IPS earlier.

Alberti has visited Iraq 28 times in the last ten years. He had been working with the women kidnapped Tuesday.

The group has consistently criticized Italian involvement in the war and occupation. "We constantly asked the Italian government to withdraw its troops from Iraq," Alberti said. "It has never been a peace mission. It is only an American occupation." The group feels they are paying for the government’s decisions.

Several other Italian NGOs continue to work in Iraq. Among these are Intersos and the Italian Consortium of Solidarity (ICS), an umbrella group of Italian NGOs. The groups were sharing the office with Un Ponte Per. . .. Both plan to stay on in Baghdad.

UN Ponte Per. . . will make a decision on staying on only after the case of the abducted aid workers is resolved.

"The distinction between the millions of Italians against the war and the people who wanted this war and are running it has gotten lost," says Gino Strada from the humanitarian association Emergency, which provides medical assistance in Iraqi Kurdistan. "We are at the last stage of a wrong war."