Tuesday, February 6, 2007

ROME — Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema yesterday protested an open letter to a Rome newspaper from U.S. Ambassador Ronald P. Spogli and five other envoys urging Italy to maintain its troop deployment in Afghanistan.

Mr. D’Alema, a former communist who, as prime minister in 1999, won NATO’s trust with his support for the bombing of Kosovo, called the letter an “irregular” departure from normal diplomatic procedures. The letter also was signed by the ambassadors of Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Romania.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s center-left government is struggling to maintain its deployment of 1,938 troops in Afghanistan in the face of opposition from Communists and Greens in the Cabinet, three of whom abstained when the Cabinet voted to refinance the mission last month.

Mr. Prodi has withdrawn most Italian troops from Iraq, and his government’s razor-thin majority in the Senate could collapse if the dissident coalition members follow through on threats to vote against the Afghan refinancing.

“There are more appropriate bodies in which to discuss Italy’s commitment in Afghanistan rather than through open letters from ambassadors to daily newspapers,” Mr. D’Alema snorted during a visit to Seoul.

In Washington, the State Department said the letter was “a praiseworthy initiative” by the U.S. envoy.

Mr. D’Alema last night sent his own letter to the six envoys, expressing “surprise and disapproval” at their decision to make their missive public. Gianfranco Fini, a spokesman for the opposition, fired back, telling Mr. D’Alema, “What was irregular was your angry response.”

A Canadian Embassy spokesman rejected speculation in the Italian press that Mr. Spogli had pressured his fellow ambassadors to sign the letter.

“It is true that the Americans had a guiding role in the affair, but the letter was born out of exchanges of views between the various ambassadors on the spot,” the spokesman said. “It was totally shared by all of us.”

Some Italian newspapers speculated that the ambassadors of France, Germany and Spain also had been approached but had declined to sign the letter because their governments were uncomfortable with a NATO appeal for increased troop deployments in Afghanistan.

Foreign Ministry sources said they were aware that Mr. Spogli and his recently arrived British counterpart, Edward Chaplin, planned to ask Italy to assign its troops in Afghanistan to more front-line duties.

Sources said Mr. D’Alema heard nothing more until he received a call in Japan informing him that the letter from the six envoys had been published in the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica.

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