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Italians Divided After Return of 'Simonas'

Hostages' Criticism of War Stirs Anger

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page A16

ROME, Oct. 1 -- For three weeks, Italians across the country marched, held vigils and lit candles, and politicians united to promote freedom for a pair of humanitarian aid workers held captive in Iraq.

Only days after the safe return of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, the country and its politicians are divided. The celebration of the "Two Simonas," as the pair came to be known, has been clouded by a wave of recrimination over Italy's participation in the U.S.-led efforts to pacify Iraq.


Simona Torretta, right, and Simona Pari, who were freed by Iraqi captors Tuesday, have been criticized for voicing disapproval of Italy's involvement in the Iraq war. (Alessia Pierdomenico -- Reuters)

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Detractors called the women ingrates and accused them of being soft on terrorists. Opposition politicians renewed the debate over whether to press for the withdrawal of Italy's 2,700 troops from Iraq.

The criticism began almost immediately upon the arrival of Pari and Torretta in Rome on Tuesday. The pair expressed thanks to a variety of people and groups, including Arab moderates and Muslims. But they failed to single out the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi organized a diplomatic campaign to free them and, it is widely reported, paid a ransom of $1 million. Berlusconi tepidly denied paying the money.

The women, who opposed the war and Italy's involvement in the occupation, also expressed a desire to quickly return to Iraq, and they called for an end to Italy's involvement. They made no appeal for the freedom of other hostages.

At a news conference Thursday, they extended their expressions of gratitude to include the government. They said they didn't know about other hostages, so they had not realized an appeal was appropriate.

Torretta called the interim Iraqi government of Ayad Allawi a "puppet" and said people "have to distinguish between terrorism and resistance." The women worked for A Bridge to Baghdad, a group that has labored in Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"The guerrilla war is justified, but I am against the kidnapping of civilians," Torretta added. The pair concluded that their captors were "exponents of moderate Islam" because they "prayed frequently," she said.

Such comments enraged Berlusconi supporters. At least 17 Italian soldiers have died in Iraq.

"What a shame to see the Two Simonas use their notoriety politically and ask . . . for the withdrawal of troops," said Federico Bricolo, a member of the regionalist Northern League party. He pointed out that the demand was the same made by kidnappers threatening to kill Kenneth Bigley, a British hostage.

Italians overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq, but Berlusconi wholeheartedly supported the Bush administration.

Leftist opposition parties are divided. Some support keeping Italian troops in the country, while Communist and the Green party factions want a withdrawal. "After the liberation of the Simonas, everybody resumes their path," said the Communist Party leader, Fausto Bertinotti, who is pressing to end Italy's involvement.

Piero Fassino, the head of the Democratic Left, the largest opposition party, wants Berlusconi to promote an international conference to enlarge the armed coalition in Iraq, or else the opposition will press for Italy's troops to come home.

A spokesman for Berlusconi's coalition said withdrawal was a "not-of-this-world thesis."

Mystery surrounds much of the time spent by the Two Simonas in captivity. They said they did not gaze on their captors nor speak much with them. They said they did not know which group, if any, the kidnappers belonged to. Before the women were released, they said, their captors asked them for forgiveness.

When asked if she would forgive, Torretta replied, "I don't know."

She also reversed her expressed desire to return to Iraq soon. She said that, along with Pari, she wanted to rest with her family and read.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company