- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

CIAMPINO, Italy — The return home last week of three Italian men held hostage in Iraq since April appears to have given Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sagging approval ratings a much-needed boost before this weekend’s elections for the new European Parliament.

The three Italian civilian workers — Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana and Salvatore Stefio — were freed, as was a Polish colleague, by a U.S. Special Forces strike on Tuesday, and the trio returned to Italian soil a day later. The return was big news in Italy, where a sluggish economy and pitched debate over Italy’s participation in the U.S.-led war in Iraq have left the country in need of good news.

Television networks made rare breaks in their normal schedules to report developments related to the men’s release, and newspapers the day after their return ran oversize headlines calling the men “heroes” and “children of a grateful nation.”

Mr. Stefio, who was the first to deplane onto the runway at the small Ciampino Airport outside Rome, was in tears as he grabbed an Italian flag from an onlooker and kissed it to emotional applause from the welcoming crowd of several hundred.

Claudio Scajola, Italy’s government programs minister, was there to proclaim that Italy “embraced and saluted” the released men.

Mr. Berlusconi — speaking from the United States where he was attending the Group of Eight economic summit at Sea Island, Ga. — applauded the release as “a happy conclusion to a horrible story.” The happy conclusion may include his own future.

Though final numbers are not yet in, preliminary poll results show that the release is improving the way Italians rate Mr. Berlusconi’s job performance.

The polling company Opinioni said the number of Italians who say they approve of Mr. Berlusconi would probably rise about 5 points when the official poll is released today from the 44 percent level last Sunday, giving the prime minister a shot at topping 50 percent for the first time since February.

Even last week’s 44 percent approval rating was an increase from 41 percent in the May 30 poll, thanks to the prestige surrounding President Bush’s visit to Italy on June 4 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome.

“There is a paradox in the way opinions are swayed in Italy,” Opinioni co-director Maria Rossi said. “Bush is unpopular in Italy, but his visit made the [Italian] government seem important; most Italians don’t think Italy should have workers or troops in Iraq, but when these three men are released safely, it makes people doubt the war less.”

Opposition newspapers went further.

An editorial in Wednesday’s edition of the leftist newspaper L’Unita said that “with President Bush’s visit [to Italy], and by timing the effort to release the hostages as it did, the United States is doing everything it can to help Berlusconi.”

Il Manifesto, another paper with a similar political view, ran a photo of the three former hostages arriving at Ciampino in a frame that resembled a gift box, with a bow and a tag on top that read: “To Silvio, with tenderness, from George” — a reference to Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Bush.

Mr. Berlusconi is Washington’s closest ally in continental Western Europe, and the implication is that any help the White House could offer Mr. Berlusconi could be repayment for that before this weekend’s European Parliament elections, which most Italians consider a referendum on Mr. Berlusconi’s three-year tenure as prime minister.

Notwithstanding the release of the three workers, most of the news coming out of Iraq and relevant to Italy is negative, and is steadily eroding Mr. Berlusconi’s support. The fourth hostage taken with the three men who were released — Fabrizio Quattrocchi — was murdered, and some 20 other Italians have died in peacekeeping efforts there.

Furthermore, when Spain — Washington’s other major ally in continental Western Europe — broke ranks and pulled its troops out of Iraq following the March 11 railroad bombings in Madrid, it galvanized Italians who opposed the war with the feeling they could effect a similar withdrawal from Iraq.

So far, the antiwar movement in Italy has failed to bring about any policy changes. Every time he’s asked about it, Mr. Berlusconi insists that Italy’s 3,000 troops are in Iraq for the duration.

“We are doing the right thing in Iraq,” Mr. Berlusconi said before leaving for the G-8 meetings. “We are making the world better and safer, and we have no doubts.”

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