WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Wednesday's suicide bomb in Nasiriyah killing at least 16 Italian servicemen and two civilians was on a par with the Nov. 2 death of 16 U.S. soldiers who died when their Chinhook helicopter was shot down. In either case, the loss of life was tragic, but proportionately the political and emotional impact of the Italian bombing is far larger. There are 2,400 Italians deployed in Iraq, compared to 140,000 American troops.
This point was being made by Italian political sources in Rome Wednesday, to explain the enormous sense of shock and anger in Italy. For the first time opposition politicians were calling for an Italian withdrawal from Iraq. Until now, conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war -- has had almost full parliamentary backing for committing Italian troops for a coalition occupation force.
But after what the authorities are describing as a deliberate terrorist attack on the barracks in Nasiriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates River in southern Iraq, positions are hardening. Berlusconi insisted Wednesday that the mission will continue, but he faces a political battle on the future of the Iraq force.
With the nation in virtual mourning, extreme leftwing groups called for an immediate pullout. "Great is our rage, and even greater is our protest against this government which has sent our sons to die in a colonial and imperialist war," declared communist leader Admando Cossutta.
"It is immoral to put the lives of thousands of young Italians at risk for Bush's pre-emptive wars," declared Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, who heads the Greens. "We need to pull out our troops immediately."
Pietro Folena of the main opposition party, the Democrats of the Left, said, "The Italian servicemen must come home. It is the right thing to do now."
More moderate opposition groups were calling for a U.N. peace force to replace the coalition. Francesco Rutelli, who heads the Daisy (Margarita) party, said, "Today is not the time for critical reflection, which will come over the next few days about the Italian presence, on the aim of the mission, on the need for a U.N. force."
The attack stunned Washington's allies, according to reports, because the conventional wisdom had been that non-U.S. troops were less vulnerable to attack from Saddam Hussein loyalists and other guerrillas. With the exception of the British, foreign troops now in Iraq had not taken part in the war.
Wednesday's attack, together with last week's killing of a Polish major in Baghdad, undermines that view. It also raises questions about Bush Administration claims that southern Iraq was trouble free.
Besides the approximate 132,000 American troops, there are currently around 20,000 troops, or roughly a division, from 32 Coalition countries in Iraq, ranging from sizeable contingents from Britain (15,000), Italy (2,400), Spain (2,000), and Poland (5,000) to such symbolic numbers as 193 troops from Nicaragua, and 500 from Ukraine. Washington was hoping to recruit a second division; but diplomats in Washington were saying that likelihood was now more remote than ever.
The troops are from countries that had been willing to answer President George Bush's call for help without U.N. cover. A Security Council resolution subsequently endorsed the U.S. call for help, but Washington has consistently balked at giving the United Nations a defined, central role either in peace keeping or in the political process of bringing democracy to Iraq.
Observers were predicting Wednesday that pressure on Washington to convert the foreign troops into a U.N. peace keeping force as a condition for remaining in Iraq was now likely to increase, forcing Bush to do something he has so far successfully resisted doing: sharing power with Kofi Annan.