Italians, Pushed out of Nasiriyah, Tell Bush to Back Off
10 Italian Troops Wounded, 20 Iraqis wounded, 2 Killed
More heavy fighting at Nasiriyah on Sunday. AP reports that the Mahdi Army in Nasiriyah has tossed the Italians off their own base, just as had been done to the Ukrainians at Kut in early April. The present feat is more impressive, since the Italian contingent is larger and better trained.
AP says, “Two Iraqi fighters were killed and 20 were wounded in battles in Nasiriyah, mostly at two bridges crossing the Euphrates River, residents said. The Italian troops evacuated as their base came under repeated attack. Portuguese police were called out to support the Italians, seeing action for the first time since the force of 128 deployed to Nasiriyah in November, a Portuguese duty officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. At least 10 Italians were wounded, one critically, contingent spokesman Lt. Col. Giuseppe Perrone said by phone. He said the Italians relocated to the nearby Tallil air base. Elsewhere in Nasiriyah, a convoy transporting the Italian official in charge of the city, Barbara Contini, came under attack as it neared the headquarters of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Perrone said. Two Italian paramilitary police were wounded.”
But Suleiman al-Khalidi of Reuters scooped all the other wire services by focusing on the Italian domestic fallout from the fighting in Nasiriyah and the Abu Ghuraib photos.
Khalidi points out that the Abu Ghuraib prison torture scandal has severely undermined the US in Italy, where the public was always much more ambivalent about the war than the rightwing government of Silvio Berlusconi. (Italy’s force is the third biggest in Iraq, after the US and Britain, and is deployed around Nasiriyah). Berlusconi has sent out his foreign minister, Franco Frattini, to upbraid the US.
“Frattini . . . told Washington it must mete out “severe and public” punishment for crimes that have dominated Italian media. Nine Italian soldiers were wounded on Sunday in Nassiriya, where Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia has staged what U.S. commanders call a “minor uprising” across the south provoked by U.S. assaults on its main bases in the Shi’ite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala. “We have asked the Americans to avoid frontal attacks on Iraqi holy cities and to hand over military control of these cities to Iraqi forces,” Frattini wrote in a newspaper. The Italian official running the administration in Nassiriya, Barbara Contini, was in a convoy which came under fire.”
Then, Ahmad Chalabi, the long-time expatriate Iraqi politician who was once the darling of the Defence Department neoconservatives, weighed in:
“Chalabi, once the voice of exiled Iraqis opposed to Saddam Hussein and himself a Shi’ite, sharply criticised U.S. tactics. He said Washington’s demands that Sadr let himself be arrested for murder was complicating Iraqi efforts to resolve the crisis. “Enforcing Iraqi law should not be a U.S. military objective,” Chalabi said. “I wonder why the price for enforcing an arrest warrant should be more than 1,000 Iraqi lives?” . . . Sadr aides accused British troops of murdering prisoners and mutilating their bodies. The guerrillas buried 22 men they said died at British hands near Amara on Friday. ”
The Italians and Chalabi are telling the Bush administration publicly what the British have been telling it privately for weeks. This Ahab-like fixation on getting Muqtada al-Sadr at all costs may well completely discredit the United States in Iraq, given the damage already done to the sanctity of the shrine cities. Can you imagine what the elections are going to look like this coming winter if they are held? Won’t all the candidates in the Arab areas actually be running against the United States?
By the way, the Berlusconi government is not brighter or less arrogant than that of Bush. It is just that the Italians have a small, exposed force, and they know it is US policy that is endangering it, and they know that the policy grows out of unnecessary and adventurist goals.