Home by the end of the year, even earlier maybe. Italy’s foreign minister Massimo D’Alema declared during his flash visit to Baghdad on June the 7th that Italy’s military presence in Iraq will be over ‘by autumn’. So, a few weeks more, and then the most unpopular, the costliest and bloodiest Italian military experience since World War II will be over. Or not?
D’Alema remarked that the centre-left coalition which won the Italian political election a few weeks ago had a committment to the voters. In fact, ‘Italy will not be leaving Iraq, but will provide political and economic assistance to the new government’. Furthermore, the long overdue withdrawal of Italian troops from the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, will be ‘agreed with the Iraqi government and with allies to ensure that no power vacuum will be left’, he explained. The Italian parliament will soon be debating whether or not to renew the mission in Iraq and, if so, how much to pay for it. The dice, though have been cast.
‘It has not been easy, but we did it’, comments Fabio Alberti, head of the NGO, Bridge to Baghdad. They’ve been working in Iraq since 1993, and two of their staff workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents a year and an half ago. Fabio Alberti, with the expertise his NGO had accumulated in more than ten years of field work in Iraq has been at the forefront of Italy’s peace movement. ‘When one million people demonstrated in Rome, on the 15th of February 2003 we all thought that war was going to explode anyway. And when part of the centre-left coalition decided to vote to send troops, we all knew that they were going to change their mind. We knew we were right, and we are sorry to be proven right, though. Had Berlusconi’s government listened to Italians, who were overwhelmingly against the war, we would have saved the lives of Italian soldiers. And we wouldn’t have been accomplices to an occupation based on lies and developed through violence and political blackmail’.
Italy’s peace movement has been working ever since the start of the war to bring the voice of peaceloving citizen into government offices. Shifting the balance inside the centre-left coalition and even among some parts of the right coalition is the most important achievement of the peace movement. ‘Without those demonstrations, without the debates and events we have held in the last three years all round Italy, I doubt the new government woud have put troop withdrawal into its election programme’ says Alberti, and I doubt even more if it would have kept its word.’
The new government still has to clarify the date when the homecoming will be completed. They also have to explain what ‘economic and political assistance’ means exactly. ‘We do not want to have a continuation of the occupation in civilian clothes’, says Alberti.
The primary goal of the Italian presence in Dhi Qar province and in the city of Nassiriya turns out to have been protection of the interests of Italy’s oil company, ENI. It had been granted by Saddam Hussein the oil concession in the fields around Nassiriya. No-one ever believed the siting of the Italian troops there was a coincidence. ENI hope to have a share of Iraq’s oil wealth. Iraqis resistance and US errors and horrors cancelled this hope. ‘Maybe they realised that it is a better business technique not to equal the US and British troops’, guesses Alberti, ‘nonetheless, it is very good news, which allows Italy to play a different game’.
Alberti has been calling for an international peace conference on Iraq ever since George W. Bush triumphanly declared ‘mission accomplished!’ And he wanted Italy’s strong peace movement to be part of it: ‘We have started good work with the Iraqi oil workers’ union, and with other civil society organisations which are against the occupation, but do not share the jihadist taste for civil war and bloodshed’ he says, ‘they should be part of any new Iraqi institutional architecture and political process. Their exclusion so far has left space for corrupt political parties and religious organisations. It has been a mistake, as big as the exclusion of neighbouring countries, from Iran to Syria, into a wider approach to Iraqi security issues. Democracy is not just voting; if we want – and we do want – a peaceful and democratic Iraq we have to move away from a technocratic approach. We need to trust Iraqis and count on their desire for peace and self-determination. It is the only way to defuse the civil war and the ethnic-religious partition of the country, which would be a catastrophe. Such proposals need to be supported by countries which are not involved in the occupation. Now Italy has a chance to push for it. If we are not at war, we can talk politics, and work for a respectful peace’.Fabio Alberti was talking to Enzo Mangini from Carta, a partner with Red Pepper in Eurotopia.