ITALY'S LEFT ADJUSTS IRAQ STAND

Ian Fisher
The International Herald Tribune

Outsiders might be forgiven for puzzlement: How can Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who sent 3,000 troops to Iraq, now claim so loudly that he tried to dissuade President George W. Bush from war?
And how is it that opposition leaders who marched in big antiwar rallies now seem squeamish about bringing the troops home too quickly?
There are two short answers: Iraq may be mostly an American war, but it causes endless complications for allies like Italy and Britain. And general elections are approaching here, which means Italians will have to work extra-hard to understand what it is their leaders are saying.
As always in politics, self-interest is the driving force ? and in the case of Iraq, political analysts say, a hard-fought electoral campaign is forcing Berlusconi and his opponents alike away from their long-held and polarized positions, toward a more realistic center. For the first time, there has been talk in recent days of Berlusconi's center-right government and the center-left opposition forging a pact on how and when to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq, possibly near the end of 2006. That date is in line with an informal timetable given in recent days both by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, who visited Italy last week.
''What we are seeing here from both sides is a more moderate position,'' said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. ''Because the moderate position is where the majority of the electorate is, and neither of them wants to be seen on the margins here.''
Nearly three years after the war began, the majority of Italians seem at about the same place on the Iraq dilemma as most Americans and British people: Not happy about the decision to go to war, but worried that pulling out overnight would not contribute to stability.
The decision to dispatch troops to Iraq is one reason, if a smaller one than Italy's lagging economy, for Berlusconi's current unpopularity. Most specialists agree that after four years in office, he looks likely to lose the vote, next April 9. Last spring, amid anger about the shooting death by an American soldier of an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad, the prime minister played to popular sentiment by speaking of a gradual withdrawal. So far, 300 troops have left, with 2,993 remaining.
Two weeks ago, with the campaign heating up, Berlusconi sought to distance himself further, before a trip to Washington to meet with Bush. ''I was never convinced that war was the best system to bring democracy to the country and to get rid of a bloody dictatorship,'' he said in a television interview. ''I tried several times to convince the American president not to go to war.''
He added: ''I believed that military action should have been avoided.''
Amid howls from the left accusing him of hypocrisy, the comments made front-page news in Italy, to Berlusconi's professed disbelief. ''It's something I always said,'' one newspaper quoted him as saying. ''There is nothing to be surprised about.'' At the same time, several government officials said that most Italian troops could be home in the first half of 2006 ? in step, by coincidence or not, with the election schedule.
Meanwhile, the center-left opposition found itself recalibrating its position, to plug gaps in its own credibility with voters and to acknowledge the present-day reality in Iraq: both sides fear that civil war would break out if the foreign troops left, and hold hopes for the new government and Constitution.
''Some Italians believe that, 'Oh, we can withdraw as long as the Americans stay,''' said Emma Bonino, head of the Radical Party, a leftist party not in the formal center-left opposition. ''The Europeans very much like this approach. You look good and the other ones do the dirty job.''
Bonino, who opposed the war in 2003, started to speak this month about a more gradual withdrawal, igniting what appeared to be a reappraisal on the left. While the opposition had been talking about the troops' immediate return to Italy if it won, top leftist leaders began speaking of a slower pullout, negotiated with the Iraqis and other allies, including the United States.
''Certainly I shall not make a coup de théâtre as was done by the Spanish,'' Romano Prodi, the former prime minister who is the center-left's candidate against Berlusconi, said in an interview with Newsweek published last week. He was referring to what had seemed to be the leftist model here until recently: the quick withdrawal of Spanish troops last year after José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was elected prime minister.
Political leaders and analysts said the apparent shift was motivated both by the real dangers of chaos in Iraq and electoral pragmatism. Though most Italians oppose the war in the Iraq, the nation largely values a close relationship with the United States. But just as Berlusconi's original decision to join with the United States represents a liability, the center-left's shift may cause it political problems.
One of the ongoing weaknesses on the left is a lack of unity ? and more left-leaning parties in the coalition, like the Greens and the Refounded Communists, advocate not a negotiated withdrawal but a notification that Italy's troops are coming home.