No peace in the piazza

In Italy, anti-war protesters' big disagreement with the government is over how best to subdue Iraq. Dominic Standish reports from Rome.

Dominic Standish

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Like other demonstrations against war with Iraq over the weekend, the one in Rome was big – three million attended if you believe the organisers, one million if you believe the police. There was a carnival atmosphere in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni, as anti-war protesters gathered to wave rainbow-coloured peace banners and sing John Lennon’s peace anthem ‘Imagine’.

But what were the politics of the protest? It was not easy to assess the marchers’ political aims. Many political leaders attended the demo, but none delivered a speech from the platform. Everyone seemed simply to agree that they were against war with Iraq and opposed to the Italian government’s support for the USA.

The Italian government insists that a second United Nations resolution authorising military force is necessary before any strike on Baghdad. Yet Italy has been one of America’s staunchest allies in Europe in the campaign for war. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has cited Flavio Vegezio, an author on foreign politics during the Roman Empire: ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ (‘If you want peace, prepare for war’) (1).

The Italian government has promised the Bush administration that US fighter planes can use Italian airspace. Transport planes bound for the Gulf will be able to use military bases in Italy for refuelling and stopovers. On 14 February 2003, the government strengthened its support for the USA by offering the use of infrastructure – roads, ports and railways – for the war effort. Italy has also dispatched Alpine troops to Afghanistan to free up more US forces for assignments in the Gulf.

The incoherent opposition to Berlusconi’s government has found a cause in challenging the war campaign. The opposition coalition has few substantially different policies from Berlusconi and co, and was unable to mobilise significant numbers for the last general election in 2001. So the opposition coalition now seems to be defining itself against Berlusconi by claiming to be anti-war.

But behind the formal anti-war statements, the opposition, like the Italian government, is pro-intervention. Francesco Rutelli, leader of the opposition coalition, has opposed a US-led military attack in favour of strengthening UN inspections to disarm the Iraq. Massimo D’Alema, president of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Left, also supports the kind of ‘peaceful’ UN invasion favoured by the French and German governments (2).

D’Alema has been a significant figure in the traditional left’s shift to supporting war. As the first former communist to become prime minister, he authorised Italy’s participation in the war against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999, without the approval of the Italian parliament or a UN resolution authorising the use of force. D’Alema claimed that the Kosovo bombings were humanitarian in the imaginatively titled book, Kosovo (4).

The Radical Party has another kind of ‘peace’ plan. Although not represented in Parliament, the party’s leader Marco Panella is an influential figure in Italian politics and a member of the European Parliament. He was critical of Rome’s anti-war march, arguing that ‘the peace they are demanding is a non-war, and a non-war is nothing’ (3). Panella’s plan for Iraq is for Saddam Hussein to go into exile, to be replaced by a UN-supervised transitional government.

Despite the Italian government’s backing for the US-led war, many in the centre-right government are against the war. In the Lower House of Parliament, 60 centre-right members signed an anti-war appeal while Berlusconi was attempting to build support for war among EU governments.

Alfredo Biondi, a prominent member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, is leading these rebels. However, this anti-war contingent is also not substantially against war. According to Biondi, ‘Ours is the same position as the government’s, though Berlusconi has highlighted Italy’s Atlanticism while we stress the need for a steady alliance but one open to criticism’.

Italy also has a strong tradition of Catholic pacifism. In January 2003, a Demos survey of 1400 people in the north-east found that 58 percent of Catholic conservatives opposed a war with Saddam Hussein. The Catholic Church has rejected the need for military intervention, and the Pope has dispatched an envoy to Iraq to intervene in the name of peace. Yet the Pope’s key message is not against intervention. A Vatican statement says that ‘the Holy See insist[s] on the necessity on Iraq to faithfully respect, and give concrete commitments to resolutions of the UN Security Council, which is the guarantor of international law’.

The Vatican’s pacifism has been inconsistent. In the aftermath of 11 September attacks on America, the Pope declared that countries like the USA have the moral and legal right to defend themselves. During the subsequent US-led war in Afghanistan, the Pope refused to condemn the bombing, merely stating that military action should be targeted at individuals with ‘criminal culpability’ and not groups of civilians.

The superficial pacifism of the opposition coalition and the Catholic Church has contributed to a fragmented and confused anti-war movement. There is a broad consensus within the movement that Western forces should intervene in Iraq – and the major disagreement with the Italian government is over what kind of intervention to take.

Dominic Standish ( is a columnist for the Italy Weekly section of the International Herald Tribune and is doing PhD research in Venice.

(1) Iraq: Berlusconi in Senate, Agenzia Giornalistica Italia on behalf of the Prime Minister’s office, 7 February 2003

(2) See Euro-occupation plan for Iraq, by Mick Hume

(3) ‘It’s not just liberals in Italy’s anti-war camp’, Elisa Cecchi, Italy Weekly section of the International Herald Tribune, 7 February 2003

(4) Interview with Massimo D’Alema by Federico Rampini, in Kosovo, published by Mondatori, 1999

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