Monday, May 1, 2006

ROME — Iranian agents were accused yesterday of masterminding a bomb attack that killed three Italian soldiers in Iraq last week and intensified political pressure for the incoming government to speed up its withdrawal of troops from that country.

Thousands of politicians, soldiers and police solemnly filed past the coffins of the three soldiers at a chapel at Rome’s Celio military hospital yesterday. An honor guard from Italy’s Corrazieri cavalry regiment stood stiffly by the coffins, each draped with the Italian tricolor flag and the swords and berets of the dead.

The soldiers, whose deaths are being treated as a national tragedy, were killed on Thursday by a remotely detonated roadside bomb that exploded next to their armored vehicle near Nasariyah in southern Dhi Qar province. Pathologists said temperatures in the vehicle exceeded 5,000 degrees.

The newspaper la Repubblica yesterday quoted officials of the Military Intelligence and Security Service, known by its Italian acronym SISMI, saying the attack was organized by Iranian agents, who were first spotted in the province in early April.

The SISMI sources were quoted as saying the Iranians met with radical Shi’ite leaders to plot that attack and another roadside bomb that exploded near three Carabinieri paramilitary police armored vehicles close to a bridge over the Euphrates River on April 22.

A spy in a local police station evidently provided the Iranians with the route to be taken by the soldiers’ convoy. Iraqi officers at the Nasariyah police station were trained by the Italian contingent, but many are considered unreliable.

“The Tehran government was the direct mastermind of Thursday’s attack, not just a political reference point,” la Repubblica said. It said plans for Italy to withdraw all its forces from the country by the end of this year “makes it [essential] for Tehran to dominate the radical guerrilla panorama in southern Iraq.”

The bodies were flown home yesterday, and a state funeral tomorrow in Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major will be broadcast live on state-run television. Doctors were fighting to save the life of a fourth soldier wounded in the attack, whose condition was described as “critical but stable.”

Italy, a staunch ally of Washington under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, sent 3,000 soldiers to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Involvement in the war has been unpopular at home and was a key issue in close-run parliamentary elections last month.

The attack Thursday was the worst on the force since November 2003 when 19 Italians, mostly Carabinieri, were killed in a suicide attack in Nasariyah. Italy has about 2,600 troops in Iraq.

Oliviero Diliberto, head of the Italian Democratic Communist Party, a coalition partner of Prime Minister-designate Romano Prodi, said the new government could withdraw all Italian forces from Iraq by this summer.

Mr. Prodi “completely agrees with me” on speeding up withdrawal, he said. But political sources said Mr. Prodi, who is set to form a government after Mr. Berlusconi resigns tomorrow, was unlikely to accelerate the phased withdrawal so dramatically.

“There are already nearly 1,000 Italian troops scheduled to leave Iraq in May who won’t be replaced,” a diplomat said. “June is unrealistic, but Prodi might speed up the schedule to pull out by October.”

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