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Italy sad but it will soldier on

Rome, Nov. 13 (Reuters): As its tricolour flags flew at half-mast, Italy sent fresh troops to Iraq today just one day after 18 Italians were killed by suicide bombers there in what one political leader called “our September 11”.

Making good on pledges to help Iraq emerge from post-war chaos, 50 Carabinieri paratroopers left central Italy to reinforce a contingent depleted and demoralised by yesterday’s blast at a base in the southern city of Nassiriya. US President George W. Bush phoned Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of his staunchest supporters, today to discuss Iraq as shocked Italians who had thought it couldn’t happen to them mourned their loss.

Flowers were placed on forgotten war memorials and children asked why their fathers would not come home. Newspapers started fund drives for orphaned children.

Recriminations took a back seat — for the time being. Most politicians held their fire while the nation prepared to bury its dead. The bodies are due back in Italy in the coming days. Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini called it “our September 11”. Defence minister Antonio Martino visited the blast site in Nassiriya and blamed it on the “same people” who had carried out the 2001 attacks on the US.

As schoolchildren said morning prayers in chapels and housewives on their way to shop dropped flowers on pavements outside police stations from the Alps to Sicily, there was a feeling that the country was now somehow different.

“Italy pierced in its heart,” was the headline in Rome’s Il Messaggero, summing up the national mood a day after the deaths of 16 Italian troops and two civilians as well as nine Iraqis.

It was Italy’s highest military death toll in one incident since World War Two. But the cabinet ruled today that the 2,300-strong Italian contingent in Iraq would stay put.

Pope John Paul and cardinals prayed today for “the victims of the cruel attack” and even sports papers ran the deaths on their front pages.

Yesterday, the national soccer squad wore black arm bands for a match against Poland.

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