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Iraq: Al-Nasiriyah Attack Testing International Troop Commitments

The car bombing of the Italian military police base in Al-Nasiriyah yesterday has reignited debate in Italy over Rome's decision to join the U.S.-led effort in Iraq. At the same time, the deadly attack is also causing Japan to backtrack on plans to send troops to Iraq by the end of the year.

Prague, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Italian officials say early evidence from yesterday's bombing of an Italian military police base in Al-Nasiriyah indicates the suicide attack is the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino told the Italian Parliament yesterday that a cell of the Fedayeen Saddam planned and carried out the strike that killed 19 Italians and nine Iraqis. The Fedayeen are an elite armed corps that once pledged to fight to the death for Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Evidence on the ground and intelligence reports lead us to believe that the attack in Nasiriyah was planned and carried out by a Fedayeen Saddam cell," Martino said.

Martino's statement suggests that Hussein loyalists and Islamic militants -- perhaps in tandem, perhaps independently -- are now stepping up their months-old bombing campaign apparently aimed at driving foreign governments and international organizations from Iraq.

Since the toppling of Hussein's regime in April, the bombings have targeted U.S. troops, the UN, international charitable groups, British troops, the Jordanian and Turkish embassies, and now members of multinational forces including Poles, Romanians, and Italians. In some cases, the bombings have forced international organizations to suspend their missions in the face of mounting death tolls.

In August, 22 people were killed and more than 150 wounded in an attack on the UN's headquarters in Baghdad. The UN has temporarily pulled all of its foreign staff out of the capital and much of the country.

The International Red Cross has done the same after it was one of the targets of a series of bombings in Baghdad on 27 October. The bombings killed at least 35 people and wounded some 230 others.

The pullbacks of those major organizations have caused some smaller nongovernmental organizations to also remove or reduce foreign staff in the country.

No foreign government with troops in Iraq has been forced out by the strikes. But yesterday's attack on the Italian base appears to have caused at least one country that was thinking about sending troops to Iraq -- Japan -- to reconsider doing so.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, said today that Tokyo, which had planned to send troops by year's end to help rebuild Iraq, is now reviewing whether the current security situation permits a deployment.

"There should be a situation [regarding Iraq] where our country's self-defense forces can conduct their activities fully," Fukuda said. "But to our regret, the situation is not like that. So, we are examining the area and contents of needs carefully."

The Japanese statement comes as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to arrive in Tokyo tomorrow for three days of talks focusing, in part, on U.S. efforts to involve other countries in Iraq's reconstruction.

In Italy, the impact of yesterday's strike has so far been to rally the nation behind its troops and their mission in southern Iraq.

Within hours of the bombing, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appealed to Italians of all political leanings to drop their differences in the face of what he called an attack against soldiers defending Italy's democratic values: "If there is ever a day when controversy should be silenced and when all Italian citizens should show solidarity with those who have taken on the task of defending the values of our democracy, then this is the day."

Similar calls for solidarity were much in evidence in editorials in Italian newspapers today. Many called the bombing a declaration of war on Italy, from which there can be no retreat.

But even as Italian political commentators underlined the sense of resolve sweeping the country, there were few signs that Berlusconi's call for an end to the debate over Iraq would be heeded for long. Italians have been arguing passionately over Iraq ever since the prime minister -- despite large antiwar protests in Italy's main cities -- broke with some EU countries in supporting the U.S.-led invasion in March.

Today, even as newspapers universally called on the nation to unite in the face of tragedy, many columnists reviewed the basic issues dividing Italian public opinion.

The daily "La Stampa" called the bombing the deadliest single attack against Italians since World War II. And it noted that even if the attack is not on the same scale as the 11 September attacks on America, for Italians, at least, it has the same psychological significance. But the editorial also warned that Italy is now getting into its own war with terrorists "almost unaware, without understanding it and without even being sure it wants to fight it to the end."

Another daily, "La Repubblica," wrote that Italy cannot allow a terrorist attack to intimidate it or dictate its policies. But the newspaper, which was a strong critic of unilateral U.S. and British action in Iraq, also called the security problems in the country today largely due to Washington acting outside the UN framework.