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Italians Honor 19 'Dear Heroes' Killed in Iraqi Truck Bombing

Tens of thousands line the funeral route. 'It is a national pain,' one woman says of the loss.

November 19, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — A convoy of flatbed trucks bore the coffins, two by two, in a long, slow procession to St. Paul's Basilica. There, under columns and frescoes, as the Vatican's choir sang hymns, a cardinal blessed each slain man, sprinkling holy water and sending him to his final rest as this shaken nation grieved for and then bade farewell to the 19 Italians killed by a truck bomb in Iraq.

Tuesday was a national day of mourning. In fact, Italians have been mourning since the Nov. 12 suicide bombing destroyed the Italian forces' headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriyah and handed Italy its greatest military toll since World War II.

The killings have given pause to Japan and other countries considering Washington's request to send troops to Iraq.

For Italy, the deaths were a shocking realization that their men and women were not peacekeepers but were serving on a dangerous, deadly front line. Most of the dead were members of the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary police whose place in the national folklore is unparalleled.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of Italians lined the route from the mammoth chariot-topped Vittorio Emanuele monument, where the slain lay near the tomb of the unknown soldier, to the funeral at St. Paul's, Rome's second-largest church. Cavalry on horseback and helicopters overhead escorted the cortege.

Many people along the route applauded.

Men in uniform saluted, then wept. Some collapsed in sobs.

The families of the dead, flanked at St. Paul's by the nation's top dignitaries, stroked the red, white and green flags covering their sons' and husbands' wooden caskets, arrayed on a red carpet before the altar.

Temporarily at least, grief overcame politics. Italian politicians have declared a truce and have not challenged the national leadership over its decision to send troops to Iraq, despite the Italian public's overwhelming opposition to the war there.

For now, Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi has escaped major criticism. He has vowed to maintain the 2,700-member Italian military delegation in Iraq.

Unlike President Bush, who has studiously avoided appearing with the bodies of Americans returned from Iraq, Berlusconi has stepped to the center of the Italian tragedy. To do less would have angered the Italian public, analysts said.

"He had to be there. He wanted to be there," said James Walston, a political scientist with the American University in Rome. "It is something a politician here could not avoid."

On Monday, Berlusconi attended the wake alongside thousands of sorrowful Italians. On Tuesday at the funeral, he gave up his seat of honor to a grieving father.

Berlusconi had managed to finesse the Italian presence in Iraq, Walston said, so that Italians were convinced they were not sending their troops to a war but rather on a humanitarian mission. News reports from Iraq had largely confirmed that notion, showing the blue-suited Carabinieri, and the elite Bersaglieri soldiers, playing with Iraqi children, building schools and repairing bridges.

It lulled many Italians into a false sense of security.

Italians, who have participated in numerous postwar peacekeeping missions over the years, had held the illusion that they could be in the same place as Americans but be treated differently, said Italian Gen. Fabio Mini, author of a newly released book, "War After War," which discusses the Kosovo conflict.

The 2-century-old Carabinieri force, especially, is respected by Italians who believed its members were seen as more sympathetic to local populations than was the U.S. military, Mini said.

These notions of immunity were shattered last Wednesday when a truck filled with explosives rammed into the building housing the Italians in Nasiriyah. Twelve Carabinieri, five soldiers and two civilians were killed, as well as 14 Iraqis.

On Tuesday at the exact hour of the bombing, Italy, from the Alps to the island of Sicily, came to a standstill in commemoration. Subways stopped. Shopkeepers shut down business. Children rose behind their desks at schools. Taxis in Milan pulled curbside, and the stock exchange paused.

The canals of Venice were lined with Italian flags. The Colosseum in Rome on Tuesday night dimmed its lights in homage. Posters appeared everywhere bearing photographs of the 19 dead. "We will never forget our dear heroes," proclaimed one banner.

Twenty survivors of the attack attended the funeral, uniformed, bandaged, on crutches and emotional. To the strains of a lone bugler playing taps, the coffins were carried from the basilica. Each man will be buried in his hometown.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who presided over the Mass, exhorted those present not to hate the "terrorist assassins" who took so many lives.

"We won't run from them but face them with all our courage, energy and determination," he said. "But we will not hate them."

TV reporters attempted to interview mourners, but many broke down in tears.

"It is a national pain, for all of us," said one middle-aged woman amid her sobs.

"We had to honor these people who went in peace into a war that wasn't theirs," said Manuela Salvatori, 41, "and who paid with their lives."

*

Times staff writer Mark Magnier in China contributed to this report.

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