- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Cabinet held an unprecedented meeting with opposition leaders yesterday as the drama of two young Italian women taken hostage in Iraq gripped the nation.

Mr. Berlusconi called in the leaders of the opposition center-left, including his sworn enemies, the former communist Democratic Left party and the unreconstructed Communist Refoundation, for an emergency session at Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s office, in the first such meeting in postwar Italy.

Mr. Berlusconi arranged the display of national unity amid concern in his Freedom Alliance coalition over the handling of the crisis that erupted Tuesday with the kidnapping in Baghdad of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, by about 20 armed men.

The Italians are the first Western women abducted in Baghdad since the allied invasion, though a Japanese woman also was seized at one stage.

Government sources in Rome said Mr. Berlusconi had softened his stance with regard to Italian nationals in Baghdad after the slaying last month of an Italian reporter and aid worker, Enzo Baldoni, and the killing earlier this year of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a security guard. Mr. Berlusconi, however, insists that Italy’s deployment of troops in Iraq is nonnegotiable.

“We’re ready to negotiate about anything except the army in Iraq,” La Repubblica newspaper quoted government sources as saying. Mr. Berlusconi previously insisted there would be no negotiation at all with terrorists. But commentators said that if the two women, widely regarded as courageous heroines dedicated to humanitarian work, are killed, it would hit the already flagging popularity ratings of the Berlusconi government.

The Italian Defense Secret Service had cautioned the government that Italian women in Iraq likely would be the next targets of kidnappers, but Mr. Berlusconi and his aides ignored the warning, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported yesterday. Officials denied the report.

The Italian government’s meeting with opposition leaders is similar to the tactic adopted by the French government in its efforts to obtain the release of two French journalists being held in Iraq.

Mr. Berlusconi told the meeting he was “amazed” by the kidnapping of the women, one a resident of Rome and the other of the seaside resort of Rimini. He said he couldn’t understand the abductions “because of the sacredness of women in Islamic culture.”

The opposition Democratic Left asked the prime minister to seek Washington’s assistance but agreed that parties from across the political spectrum should try to solve the crisis.

A purported militant Islamic group yesterday used an Egyptian-based Internet site to claim responsibility for the kidnapping.

The group, calling itself Ansar El Zawahri, said the kidnapping was the “first of our attacks against Italy.” It demanded that Rome withdraw Italian troops from Iraq and “stop killing Muslims in Iraq and cooperating with American forces.”

The group vowed to use the two women to “burn the hearts of Berlusconi and the crusading, criminal Italian population and punish Italy for having appropriated Muslim land and killed Muslim people.”

The message appeared on the chat-line section of the Cairo-based Web site Islamic-Minbar.com. Terrorism specialists in Cairo cast doubt on the authenticity of the claims, dismissing them as “chat-line rantings,” the Italian news agency ANSA said.

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