The Italian constitution prohibits the countrys involvement in war, and in March the president of the Italian republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, made it very clear that Italy could not send troops to fight in Iraq. However, now that reconstruction is being planned, the government has committed a contingent for peacekeeping duties; some 3,000 civilians, carabinieri, soldiers, sailors and airmen will be deployed in the Middle East for humanitarian purposes as soon as preparations have been completed.

This way Italys prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has managed to keep Italy out of any direct military commitment to the Anglo-American operation Iraqi Freedom while at the same time showing his political support for United States president George W. Bush. Before the war, three quarters of Italians were against attacking Iraq, a proportion which remained pretty constant during the fighting, so the prime minister kept a low profile during the three weeks of combat. But as soon as Baghdad fell, the foreign minister Franco Frattini sought and won a resolution from parliament to send in Italian forces.

Between 300 and 400 carabinieri will serve as peacekeepers and police. Similar numbers are already serving with distinction in Bosnia and Kosovo and smaller forces are deployed in other hotspots including Afghanistan. The soldiers are engineers who will work on mine clearance and emergency rebuilding. The civilians are medical personnel and specialists who will have to deal with emergencies while at the same time working out the long-term needs of the country.

The motives are noble and less noble at the same time. There is no doubt that the support is genuinely humanitarian, but it is also a way of establishing Italys presence in the new Iraq and of enhancing its alliance with the US. This means influence and an economic role in the reconstruction, and already Italian companies are queuing up to tender for the contracts.

According to estimates, something like $100 billion will be needed to rebuild Iraq. So far the US has earmarked $2.5 billion and has begun handing out contracts without tender, but soon the real business will begin and Italy hopes to be at the top of the second division, after representatives from the coalition countries that fought the war. On the political side, the hope is that the Italian contingent in Iraq will give Berlusconi a voice in what sort of Iraqi government will be created.

This policy has the tacit support of part of the parliamentary opposition, which was strongly against the war but does not want to see Italy sidelined. The far left-wing opposition is openly against sending any Italians, but the only serious difference of opinion between the government and mainstream opposition is over the role of the United Nations. Luciano Violante of the Democratici di Sinistra made it clear that the partys support was conditional on Italian forces being part of a wider UN mandate, while the government said it would act independently of any UN resolutions or structures that might be set up. There is no pressing need or desire for the wars victors to return to the UN Security Council to sort out the paperwork of reconstruction. However, it will require support from the International Monetary Fund, as the US and Britain have neither the intention nor the capability of providing all the necessary finance, so UN involvement cannot be delayed too long.

From Berlusconis point of view there are two other political reasons to move quickly. In July Italy takes up the presidency of the European Union, and Berlusconi wants to arrive at the appointment with a high profile and the image of an internationally respected statesman.

More imminently, in May there are local elections across the country and he wants to be able to go the polls as the leader of a united coalition which has managed to steer a prudent course, avoiding war but providing much-needed humanitarian aid to a suffering people and giving Italy the promise of winning lucrative contracts in the future.

The only fly in the ointment is the rift within his government coalition over the constitutional amendment on devolution of more powers to the regions. The first half of the ratification process was completed in April, but later this year the amendment will have to be voted on again by both houses of parliament. The dicussion on the amendment has brought threats and insults from Lega Nord leader and member of Berlusconis government Umberto Bossi, who reverted to the language he used a decade ago about thieving Rome; hardly diplomatic from a cabinet minister responsible for reforms. The prime minister no doubt hopes that this is just pre-election fever, because what with the divisions in the opposition and the finessing of the Iraq issue, things are going very nicely for him.

Picture: Italian soldiers and carabinieri are already serving as peacekeepers and police in hotspots around the world, including Afghanistan.