ROME — The toll of the Afghan war was brought home to Italy in heartbreaking scenes Monday, as the country held a state funeral for six soldiers killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul last week.
Schools and offices across the country observed a minute's silence. A huge crowd greeted the flag-draped caskets with applause at Rome's St. Paul's Basilica. And inside, the congregation stilled as 7-year-old Martin Fortunato slipped from his seat during the funeral to touch the coffin of his father, Capt. Antonio Fortunato, one of the six dead.
The repercussions of their deaths rippled beyond the funeral. With President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in attendance, the ceremony was interrupted by a man who managed to grab a microphone to repeatedly call for "Peace now." And media reports said onlookers yelled, "Now pull them out!" and "How many deaths more?" at Berlusconi as he left the service.
Italy has about 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, and it sent 500 more to provide short-term security for last month's presidential election.
Those additional troops are supposed to return soon, but even before Thursday's suicide attack, which also killed 10 Afghans, there were calls for many more to come home. Popular support for the Afghan mission is flagging: A poll published in the newspaper Corriere della Sera on Friday said 58% of Italians wanted their troops to withdraw.
Berlusconi has so far refused to unilaterally bring his contingent back.
"Italian soldiers are there to keep war and terrorism away from our home," Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said. But the growing sentiment against the war is a blow to the Obama administration, which is trying to persuade NATO allies to increase their troop levels.
On Monday, a key Berlusconi ally renewed his call for at least some of the troops to be home by Christmas.
"It was we who sent them to Afghanistan," said Umberto Bossi, whose Northern League party is a partner in the governing coalition. "And they came back dead."
De Cristofaro is a special correspondent.