Tony Blair has promised the Italian government that British soldiers will replace Italian forces currently stationed in Iraq in the event of Italy pulling out of the occupation.
Blair met Italy’s new prime minister Romano Prodi in Rome on 2 June. At the meeting he agreed that British forces would replace 2,600 Italian troops based in Nassirya, Iraq.
Italy’s occupation of Nassirya is thoroughly bound up with the oil interests of Italian companies – in particular those of Eni, the country’s energy company, which was privatised in the 1990s.
The Italian troops were deployed in June 2003 by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who lost a tightly contested general election to Prodi’s centre left coalition in April.
Article 11 of Italy’s 1948 constitution states that the country “repudiates war as a means for settling international disputes”. This effectively makes it illegal for Italy to occupy a foreign country.
Italy’s troops were consequently deployed under the ruse of a “humanitarian mission” to bring peace to Iraq. Their real duties were to protect the convoys and installations of Italian oil interests.
Antonio Martino, defence minister under Berlusconi, recently admitted that Eni signed a commercial agreement with the Saddam Hussein regime in 1997 to extract 2.5 to 3 billion barrels of oil every year from the Nassirya area.
Martino denied this contract had anything to do with the positioning of Italian troops. But a document released by trade minister Cosimo Ventucci undermined Martino’s claim by confirming that Nassirya was the recommended site for Italian oil business development.
A documentary on Italy’s Rai TV station last month proved that Eni had set up a branch in Nassirya and was extracting oil. Italian troops were in charge of security for truck convoys at the depot.
These revelations are the latest twist in the long running political struggle over Italy’s military presence in Iraq. Berlusconi caused widespread panic in George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” last year when he said Italian troops would leave Iraq by September. He backtracked on this decision after a call from the US president.
During the general election campaign, Berlusconi’s right wing coalition promised that 1,000 troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by June, the rest leaving by the end of the year.
In contrast Prodi’s L’Unione coalition promised a complete withdrawal from the occupation along the lines of that promised during the 2003 Spanish general election, which saw the right defeated by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s centre left party.
But since winning the election, L’Unione has been hit by internal wrangling over how to implement the withdrawal. The radical left side of L’Unione, including Rifondazione Comunista and the Green Party, is calling for the “Zapatero Way” – an immediate end to the occupation.
But L’Unione’s left democrat and Catholic Margherita components want to hold back. Massimo D’Alema, the new foreign affairs minister, says he expects Italian troops to be retired gradually over this year in accordance with the wishes of the US and Britain.
On 31 May the new defence minister Arturo Parisi said Italian troops would retire from Iraq – but only to be redeployed to Afghanistan. This announcement has sparked outrage in Italy, which has seen large anti-war protests in the last few years.But it is entirely in line with the “Zapatero Way” – the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq in 2003 led only to the repositioning of troops to Afghanistan.
Nuri al-Maliki, the new Iraqi prime minister, expects most coalition troops to have left Iraq by the end of the year. This coincides with US plans to scale back the occupation and hand over “security” duties to coalition trained Iraqi army and police.
But these assurances are constantly being questioned. Bush recently authorised a further US 1,500 troops to be deployed to Anbar province.
The occupation is bogged down by ongoing resistance and escalating violence in Iraq. That battle is widening cracks in Prodi’s coalition. The Italian troop withdrawal from Iraq is set to be Prodi’s first and most controversial test.