By Alexandra Salomon, Globe Correspondent, 3/9/2003
Throughout Italy, sentiments against a US-led war on Iraq appear to be rising, challenging a government that has been one of the staunchest US allies.
The conservative prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has been a strong supporter of the Bush administration's tough position on Iraq. Italy, where nearly 12,000 US troops are based, has offered the United States the use of military bases, ports, highways, and other infrastructure in case of war.
The government also has granted permission for US aircraft to land on Italian bases for refueling and for US fighter planes to use Italian airspace.
But as war looms, antiwar campaigners have grown bolder and opposition has stiffened. In a recent survey in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, 88 percent of Italians said they opposed military intervention in Iraq.
Italians, like the French and Germans who oppose launching a war before all diplomatic efforts fail, "don't really see Iraq as a threat and don't believe that a US-led military invasion of Iraq has anything to do with fighting terrorism," said Sergio Romano, a former Italian diplomat.
More than 20,000 antiwar protesters rallied yesterday outside Camp Darby, a US base near Pisa, chanting "No to War." A few hurled smoke bombs but most protested peacefully.
While about 1 million people turned out for a peace protest in Rome on Feb. 15, antiwar activists have been making their case in other ways recently.
On Feb. 28, hundreds of protesters chained themselves to a civilian ferry transporting military vehicles to a US Navy base in Sicily that serves as a supply center for US operations in the Mediterranean. For the past two weeks, pacifist groups have tried to block trains transporting military equipment from bases near Vicenza in northern Italy to Camp Darby.
During the last week of February, hundreds of protesters at train stations throughout the country formed human chains across the tracks in order to force oncoming trains to halt. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the Southern European Task Force, said a small group of anti war protesters has gathered outside the gates of the US Army base of Camp Ederle every Thursday evening for the past six weeks.
Last week, demonstrators briefly occupied Rome's Fiumicino airport to protest the transport of US military personnel.
"We don't want our airports, ports, and railroads to be used as instruments of war, a war which has no ethical motives, a war which isn't about stopping a humanitarian crisis," said Tommaso Fattori, spokesman for the European Social Forum, an international antiwar organization. "This is a war which will only serve the political and economic interests of the US government."
The Italian government has tried to maintain order without appearing to violate citizens' constitutional right to protest. Police in riot gear have forcibly removed protesters who chained themselves to the train tracks and arrested several hundred people.
The Interior Ministry has sent an additional 1,500 police officers to guard the railroad stations along the routes being used to transport items between bases. Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said, "We will use all measures possible, and when necessary, we will employ the full restraining force of the state" to keep the transportation lines open.
But war opponents have vowed to keep up the pressure. "We will be at the bases, at the ports, wherever necessary," said Paolo Cento, a parliamentarian from the Green Party who has spearheaded political opposition against military intervention in Iraq.
How the growing antiwar movement will affect Berlusconi's political standing remains unclear. His popularity also has ebbed amid an ongoing series of corruption trials in Milan and the country's floundering economy.
"Berlusconi reads the surveys," Romano said. "And he's realized in the last week that the majority of Italians are against this war."
In his most recent address to Parliament, Berlusconi said he believed that Europe could not "disassociate itself from or oppose the United States" during the current crisis, and added that although he believed the use of force should be the last resort, that the "United States will not be alone in the enterprise of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of one who has already so cynically violated international legality."