November 23, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East
Just a year ago, Italian troops in Iraq were
bleeding and dying.
On Nov. 12, 2003, a truck crashed into the Italian headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriyah. A car bombing swiftly followed. At least 19 Italian soldiers and eight Iraqi citizens were killed. Scores more were injured, some critically.
Back at home, Italy had a day of mourning for the victims, but refused to see itself as a victim. Defense Minister Antonio Martino met with the families of two of the dead soldiers. "They didn't shed a tear that day," he says. "They were proud of what their sons had accomplished in Iraq."
And when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came under political pressure to withdraw Italy's 3,000 troops from Iraq, he steadfastly refused. "The pain at this time is a feeling shared by the whole nation, a deep pain for the lives that have been cut short by terrorism, during a humanitarian mission for freedom," Berlusconi announced. However, he insisted Italy would stay the course.
Now, a year later, Italian forces have remained on station in Iraq and rebuilt their headquarters.
They're still there, still fighting terrorism and still making progress. The soldiers regularly publish a small newspaper in Arabic and hand out thousands of copies to local citizens. In a recent edition, they reiterated their commitment to the Iraqis. "A year after this bloody attack, we are still co-operating, talking to each other and meeting each other," the soldiers wrote. "We are still working and building a better future together."
Their work has paid dividends for them, and for the people of Iraq. Recently, Iraqi civilians told the soldiers about a planned terrorist bombing, and the Italians were able to disarm the explosive before it could go off.
And that's exactly the point. In Iraq, the coalition forces are working with Iraqis to build a better nation. The vast majority of Iraqis know that and appreciate it. "Even with limited resources, we've already trained 5,000 policemen and 1,000 soldiers," Martino told me. "Many have thanked me for what we're doing."
Iraq's leadership sees benefits, too. "Democracy, the rule of law and liberty will win in Iraq despite the difficulties," Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, recently told reporters after a meeting with Berlusconi. "We believe that the reconstruction in Iraq can help the stability of the region and the world."
For his part, the Italian leader remains committed to Iraq. "Italy will stay in Iraq according to the requests that will come from a legitimate Iraqi government," he announced. He still sees Italy's mission there as "defending democracy in the world."
This message -- that we have allies in Iraq and that we're all working to build a better world -- seems to have been lost during our recent presidential election. In the final week of the campaign, Sen. John Kerry told NBC that if he'd been president, "We'd have gone to war with allies in a way that the American people weren't carrying the burden and the entire world understood why we were doing it."
But Kerry had it exactly backward. We have allies carrying a large part of the burden. Italian troops serve under British command. And they themselves are in charge of Romanian and Portuguese detachments. The allied mission is popular in Iraq, and it's passing the electoral test at home, too.
President Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard have both been re-elected after promising to stay the course in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to prevail when his country holds its next elections.
America's allies know Iraq is an important front in the war on terrorism. The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people are thankful the coalition is there. And we should be thankful for Italy and all of our allies standing alongside us -- fighting when necessary and spreading freedom to the Middle East.
Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.