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Italy's contribution to the U.N. peacekeeping force will be the largest contingent of any European country. Italian officials see the mission as a test of European cooperation and a symbol of a new, more assertive foreign policy.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:
Italy has never had a reputation as a militaristic power, but over the last several weeks it has emerged as the driving force behind the Lebanon mission. On the windswept deck of the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, Prime Minister Romano Prodi addressed the troops before their departure. It's a mission of enormous historical importance, he told them.
Prime Minister ROMANO PRODI (Italy): (Through Translator) Italy has finally returned to play an important role on the international stage and is making its presence felt in the Mediterranean Basin, which is so vital for our country's interests.
POGGIOLI: Since Prodi came to power last spring as head of a center-left coalition, he has rapidly shifted Italy's foreign policy away from the unquestioning pro-American stance of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.
One of the first moves was the gradual pullout negotiated with authorities in Baghdad of the Italian contingent in Iraq. Prodi's diplomatic advisor Stefano Sannino dismisses the notion that Italy has to choose sides. On the contrary, he says, Prodi wants the U.S. and Europe to work hand in hand.
Mr. STEFANO SANNINO (Italian Diplomatic Advisor): Italy must find its place in Europe. It must be able, as we have done in this case, to gather Europe around a strong idea and, together with the United States, be an effective player on the international scene.
POGGIOLI: Prodi was European Union Commission president for five years and was able to take advantage of his vast network of contacts in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. And Rome was chosen for an emergency conference on Lebanon at the end of July.
Italy's commitment to the Lebanon force has broad domestic support. Even leftists and pacifists in the government are hailing it as a crucial peace initiative while the war in Iraq was seen as a unilateral American decision. Marta Dassù, director of the Aspen Institute Italy, says Rome's new international assertiveness has been facilitated by new developments.
Ms. MARTA DASSU (Aspen Institute Italy): Now we have a very different frame, both in terms of international legitimacy and in terms of international agreement between the Europeans themselves, the transatlantic community and all through the Arab moderate countries. And we have the agreement of the parties involved, at least in theory, so the starting conditions are very different.
POGGIOLI: But diplomatic advisor Sannino does not underestimate the risks of the mission. He says the international community must ensure its solid political framework.
Mr. SANNINO: First of all we have to work very closely with the two main actors, Lebanon and Israel, but also with the Arab countries of the region in order to make sure that the best conditions are there for this mission to perform its role.
POGGIOLI: One of Italy's goals is to get Syria and Iran involved. Yesterday Prodi phoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to get his support of the peace mission in Lebanon. Sannino says Italy hopes the call marked the opening of a dialogue.
Mr. SANNINO: From that point of view, there were signs given by Assad in this direction, but certainly it is something that needs to be nurtured, that needs to be developed further.
POGGIOLI: Despite the many risks ahead Italian officials exhibit confidence. They claim Italy has always had the best relations with the Arab world and now also enjoys an unprecedented degree of trust in Israel, a position few other European countries can rival.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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