After what has happened in Iraq, with the assassination of the Italian agent of the military secret services and the injuring of the hostage he had worked to free and at least another person, the mood in Italy is dark.
Berlusconi (at least for a day) was pretty shocked at the turn of events, and had uttered words that no one expected. He had said that he wanted accountability for the actions that had taken place. The dynamics of the shooting he heard in real time, since the agent was telephoning in direct to the head of SISMI (The Military Secret Services Agency which was handling the hostage crisis). There was no “exchange of crossfire” this time. The shots came from one direction and without warning or motivation. Those responsible, even if Berlusconi didn’t “say” it directly when he made his first press conference immediately following the event, given in direct feed while everyone was at home watching the evening news report, are the Americans.
What has been happening since then has been a subtle shift in direction of the focus of the news commentary. While it is absolutely confirmed without a doubt that those accountable for the killing are the US soldiers stationed 700 metres from the Baghdad airport, positioned in a spot in which the vehicles have all successfully undergone previous US checkpoints on the same road, with no deviations. The road taken by the civilian car carrying the Italians, which was the road of privileged access, was monitored only by American forces, the same forces that had given the agents the passes to bear arms that very morning, and had OKd the takeoff of the plane that was to carry the Italians to Rome direct from Baghdad without the customary stop in a second or third nation. Because of all of these elements, which are irrefutable, the Italian government is starting to do some damage control on the public opinion.
The anger, shock and pain of it (and I can attest that the sorrow is real. I will never forget my seven year old child calling me to tell me that Giuliana had been freed, thinking that I hadn’t heard the news on my radio at work, and our shouts of joy and her tears of happiness. That same evening, an hour later, watching the news of the tragic epilogue roll in, there was a sentiment of numbness and disbelief. The next day, it mutated into pure sorrow when we saw how the hostage was coming back, and later how the agent was coming back). It was especially incredible because the news had aired several minutes before the announcement of the agent’s death, before they even knew he was dead, a film of Sgrena made by her captors shortly prior to her release. She was of course under pressure, but she was well, her mental faculties were apparently positive, as well as her physical state. Watching her be helped off the plane was as if the person in the release video had aged overnight by at least twenty years. She was in tatters and visibly shaken. Yet, she was on Italian soil. In the condition of a free woman. We can only imagine the terror of being in a car which was receiving an unexpected “hail of bullets” by an armoured American tank just two minutes before the scheduled arrival at the plane waiting to whisk the Italians to safety, and I think anything we can imagine is much less traumatic than what she lived through. Even in the state of health and several operations to remove a bullet lodged in her shoulder later, she never renounced her task of telling the magistrates and the media the facts so as to hasten the investigation.
The Italians are very upset by all of this. The Italians are basically very, very tired of this war. I don’t think a valid sentiment of the sort smacks of anti-Americanism, which is the tag that many of the government and majority figures are claiming. The Italian people never wanted to be part of this war and never supported it. Those who did not take part in the massive demonstrations or did not complain about it tolerated it somehow, at best. The Italian contingent is stationed in Nassiriya with 3000 soldiers. The Italians are viewed by the Iraqis as contributing to the occupation, and are not considered to be “peace task force” soldiers as the Italian government likes to promote them as. They have various tasks, some of which could also be considered humanitarian, but they are definitely at the service of the USA, and have no autonomy. The Parliament has always been divided on the Italian troops being in Iraq, and the division is even wider in the population, which does not actively support the (Parliamentary) majority on this, even if they may have elected the majority.
Do the Italians resent being subalternate? Probably a little bit, but basically, that is not the major issue. The issue is that the Italian people do not believe in the goodwill of the US forces, and see that they are treated as occupying forces on account of it by the local population. The Italian connection with them is considered to be part of the US project, because, in a word, it is. This means hostility by the Iraqis. This means all Italians are a target and that there is no safety for any of them in Iraqi soil. The Italians were never sold on the reasons for the war, and the “reconstruction” myth wasn’t sold here either. The Iraq war is worse than evil… it is pointless.
Yet there was a belief, right or wrong, that the US was our ally. Rather, that we were considered to be their ally. What remains of this illusion has been shattered in this event. The shooting in itself goes without comment, but add to that, the delay (2 hours) in informing the Italian government of the turn of events, the fact that they did not provide immediate medical cure to the victims, the fact that they took the satellite cellular phones and even after several days, are still in possession of them…… None of this settles well, nor should it, and this is despite any consideration of if it was an ambush, if there was a concerted effort to assassinate either the journalist or the agent, or if it was something different from that.
The very fact that the US does not approve of the Italian way of handling the hostage crisi has caused the Italian government to act independently on this matter. They are aware that there is no alternative that will be tolerated by the Italian people. The hostages are high priority. They must be liberated, cost what it may. The Italian public opinion has already had to deal with the blow of other civilians being taken hostage and killed by terrorists. The government itself, if it does not want to fall, (not unlikely) is obligated to act. It MUST liberate the hostages.
This means that ransom is paid. This is deemed unforgiveable by the USA. I can understand their reasoning, yet on the other hand, can understand that the costs of war are always going to be there, and that this is a cost that is unfortunately part of the bill. How much worse would it have been if Giuliana Sgrena had been beheaded by the Iraqis? It would have meant an IMMEDIATE call for an Italian pullout by the Italian people and the Parliament would have had a hard job to prevent it from going through, riding the wave of public sentiment. The Americans probably know this too.
So, how to reconcile the evident public horror and sadness over this tragedy with the desire to pull out of Iraq immediately? To brand those who are sick and tired of it all as having “anti-American sentiment”. There is more than enough reason to have it, but believe me, the Italians don’t have it yet. They are still under America’s spell and still wrapped up in the American narrative. It will be a long time until that changes. No, what is happening is that there are entirely legitimate reasons to cast blame on America for what is happening. The tragedy and horror of the war and all of the accessory elements that accompany it, such as death and destruction. The anger at practical issues such as the impossibly high cost of fuel following the invasion, which is damaging our economy. It is logical to blame this on the Americans, and it is totally justified. The Italians are starting to look realistically at the state of things and are demanding our government to assume a dynamic role in this affair. If Berlusconi fails us, as he most likely will do, then and only then will something assuming the contours of anti-Americanism will find fertile ground. And it will be entirely justified.
Italians remember Cermis. Where in 1998 some Air Force Pilots stationed at a US base located in Italy flew below the altitude that is legal, (they were trying to see how close they could get to the cable of a chair lift) and they hit the cable, causing the death of 20 persons. The pilot tampered with the blackboxes, evidence was destroyed, the soldiers were tried in US martial courts, and out of a possible 200 year sentence, got six months…. Italians remember Cermis. We don’t want another one this time.