Plinio Lepri  /  AP
Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino speaks during a session on Iraq at the Italian Parliament on Wednesday. Martino said the government was surprised and dismayed at the abuses of Iraqi prisoners.
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 5/12/2004 7:17:12 PM ET 2004-05-12T23:17:12

In Western Europe, Italy has ended up very much alone in its stalwart support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, particularly in terms of the number of troops it has on the ground there.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is proud of that role. But with European Parliament elections just a month away, the scandal of Iraqi prisoner abuse is giving Italian voters an opportunity to express at the polls their rejection of a war they already oppose.

The political opposition here is taking full advantage of the situation to demand that Berlusconi come to parliament to respond to open questioning on what the government knew, and when it knew it. 

Berlusconi’s defense minister in the hot seat
So far the party line of the ruling coalition has been similar to that in the United States and United Kingdom — nobody had a clue, nobody told them anything, it’s all been a big surprise.

Berlusconi refused to come to parliament but sent his defense minister on Wednesday to face the barrage of criticism from the Left.

Minister Antonio Martino stuck to his guns, a lot like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did before Congress, but it wasn’t easy.

There were cries for his resignation, accusations of being America’s servants, and of ruining decades of good relations with the Arab world by participating in an illegitimate occupation.

When Martino defended himself by asking how they could be expected to prove a negative, that something didn’t happen, an opposition leader said that Italy had become so irrelevant that America and Britain didn’t even bother to inform the government of the situation when the abuses came to light.  

Oliviero Diliberto of the “Mixed Communist Party” described a lose-lose dilemma in caustic terms.

“You say today that you did not know anything, but simultaneously you declare yourself to be the best ally of the United States, a government which allows torture. Therefore, if you knew, as I believe you did, you are accomplices of the torturers, if you did not know, you are being treated by the Americans like chambermaids and you didn’t even complain! I ask you, Mr. Minister, as a minister and a man, don’t you feel shame?” demanded Diliberto.

Martino’s response unleashed a roar on both sides of the house. “I would never have thought of accusing your [communist] party of supporting Castro’s firing squads but if you want to engage in polemics...."

Things only went downhill from there, but the vibrancy and freedom of political debate in Italian democracy were alive and well. 

Upside: Democracy in action
It is only that very process of the open airing of its failures that sociologist Franco Ferrarotti believes can do anything to repair the damage done by these indelible images. 

In an interview with NBC News this week he described the exacerbation of the dynamic between East and West in Iraq as a conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and a new Western, democratic fundamentalism taken to ideological extremes, which are now feeding off each other. 

Despite that, Ferrarotti said that although “democracy is not 100 percent innocent, the difference between democracy and non-democracy is that democracy is capable of self-purging, it is capable of apologizing. We know that it is not enough to apologize. The evil has been done. What we know is that democracy has enough courage and moral integrity to face its own evil.”

Vatican weighs in
That standpoint is shared in theory by Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, but his concern about the wider reaction in the Arab world is not as hopeful.

In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Lajolo said, “Intelligent people in Arab countries understand that in a democracy such episodes are not hidden and are punished.... Still, the vast mass of people — under the influence of Arab media — cannot but feel aversion and hate for the West growing inside themselves.”

The archbishop’s estimation of the impact of this abuse scandal on relations with Islam was nothing short of extreme: “The torture? A more serious blow to the United States than September 11th. Except that the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves.”

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News bureau chief in Rome.

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