- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

LA SPEZIA, Italy The crews of Saddam Hussein's two most modern warships, in a daily ritual, don crisply pressed uniforms, hoist the Iraqi flag and swivel their gun turrets in a slow arc along the horizon of one of NATO'S most important naval bases.
Despite their proximity to British and American warships and submarines inside La Spezia naval basin, near Genoa, the Iraqis' Italian hosts could not be more accommodating.
The pride of Saddam's navy two 204-foot-long corvettes trapped by a long-standing arms embargo are supplied with daily deliveries of meat, groceries and freshly baked rolls, and constant electricity. Last week, however, came signs that the interlopers, fitted with 76-millimeter guns and missile launchers, were beginning to cause misgivings.
As Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi put his name to a letter signed by eight European leaders backing the United States in the battle to disarm Iraq, an Italian navy spokesman said: "We are completely in the dark over how to deal with these people. We asked three ministries in Rome for guidance before Christmas but have had no reply. Having to put up with this causes us much unease. It is all very strange."
The corvettes have been trapped in Italy's second-largest naval base for 17 years, since an Italian shipyard completed the first two warships of a $1.98 billion order for 11 vessels placed by the Iraqi government.
No sooner were the corvettes officially handed over than Iraq was told they could not leave because of an embargo imposed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and later extended.
One of the corvettes is in a military dry dock, undergoing emergency work arranged by the Italian navy and apparently carried out at what officials describe as a "special knockdown price."
La Spezia is a NATO center specializing in underwater ballistics and a test center for the AH-101 helicopter developed by Britain and Italy. A new generation of NATO submarine is being built there.
Until the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the Iraqi crew members and their families lived mainly onshore. Now, a 12-member core contingent, who are rotated regularly, sleep aboard their ships but are familiar to locals outside the base.
"I know them well," said the owner of the Pink Benny bar across the road from the base. "They used to come in here regularly. They were very nice, but recently they've gone to ground."

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