The Italian parliament agreed to send up to 3,000 soldiers to support American forces in Iraq in a sign of strengthening ties after Prime Minister Berlusconi’s visit to U.S. President Bush’s ranch this week.
Destination Iraq --an Italian soldier stands next to a vehicle with writing in Arabic reading "Italy."
When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hopped off a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter at George Bush’s Crawford Texas ranch early this week and was greeted warmly by a cowboy-booted U.S. President, nobody expected the visit to be just limited to an exchange of niceties.
As one of the few European leaders who placed himself squarely on the side of the U.S. in the tense run-up to the Iraq war, Berlusconi enjoys special status with Bush. Last week the Italian premier joined a select group of world leaders such as Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar (both of whom supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq) who have stayed at the U.S. president’s Crawford Texas ranch and the Camp David retreat in Maryland.
It was clear that hosting Berlusconi and giving him the red-carpet treatment was a chance for the White House to repay him by giving him a chance to show he has direct access to the world’s only superpower.
Berlusconi's Texan visit pays off for Washington
Now barely five days after Rome and Washington’s effusive show of support, the Italian premier’s Texan visit has borne fruit for the Bush administration.
On Friday, the Italian parliament voted to send 3,000 soldiers to Iraq to reinforce American and British troops struggling to keep the peace in the war-scarred country. The country’s left-leaning opposition however has rejected the Iraq deployment because it has no legitimate U.N. mandate.
The Italian troops will be stationed under British command in southern Iraq and will be primarily responsible for securing humanitarian aid and supplies. A group of 200 Italian soldiers have been in Iraq since June this year to prepare for the deployment. The mission will be financed from a special fund and is estimated to cost around €600 million.
Italy follows a number of European NATO countries such as Denmark, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Hungary in opting to send troops to postwar Iraq following a U.S. call for support.
U.S. caving in to U.N. mandate in Iraq?
In recent months the U.S. has found the going tough in postwar Iraq.
Faced with rising casualties amid its 147,000-strong force in Iraq and rising costs to taxpayers to keep the troops there, the U.S. has come under immense pressure. In recent weeks it has been casting around for countries to carry some of the burden to bestow broader international support on the peacekeeping force in Iraq.
Earlier this month the U.S. Senate voted to request the NATO military alliance for support to reinforce its troops. But so far the response from several countries, most notably EU heavyweights and strong opponents of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, France and Germany – has been lukewarm. Though not faced with any concrete U.S. requests, both Germany and France insist there is no adequate United Nations mandate to legitimize their presence, a view echoed by several other countries such as India and Pakistan.
At present the U.S. and Britain have the status of occupying powers in Iraq, under a resolution authored in May this year by Washington and London.
However in a sign that American opposition to a fresh U.N. mandate which would make it easier for countries to send troops to Iraq might be softening, Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil adminstrator told news agency PTI on Thursday, "I know some countries have said it will be easier for them to provide troops if there was some kind of U.N. requests for those troops. That is a different matter."