Francesco Cossiga, 82

Francesco Cossiga, veteran Italian politician, dies at 82

By Alessandra Rizzo
Saturday, August 21, 2010

Francesco Cossiga, who led Italy's fight against domestic terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s but resigned after failing to save the life of a politician kidnapped by the Red Brigades, died Aug. 17 at a hospital in Rome of heart and respiratory problems. He was 82.

Mr. Cossiga declared himself "politically dead" in 1978 after the Red Brigades, a leftist terrorist group, assassinated his mentor and friend Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democrats and a former premier, two months after kidnapping him.

But Mr. Cossiga went on to lead a vigorous political life for several more years, including as prime minister and president of the republic, Italy's highest office.

As president in the mid-1980s, he used the largely ceremonial, head-of-state role to publicly lambaste Parliament and the judiciary in what some saw as an effort to spur reform in an increasingly inefficient, moribund postwar system of revolving-door coalition governments.

Often accused of harboring political secrets, Mr. Cossiga, a staunch supporter of the United States, eventually admitted involvement in a shady Cold War-era, anti-communist network known as Gladio.

In another murky, never resolved Italian case, Mr. Cossiga was premier in 1980 when an Italian jetliner exploded in flight and crashed near the island of Ustica. Among theories for the jet's demise was a bomb planted by domestic terrorists or an errant U.S. or French missile allegedly fired at a Libyan MiG streaking over the Mediterranean.

Various nicknames marked the stages of Mr. Cossiga's political career. In the 1970s, the "years of lead" marked by a surge of domestic terrorism, leftists scrawled "Killer Kossiga" graffiti on walls. During his presidential years of outspoken -- many said out-of-control -- criticism, he was dubbed the "picconatore" -- literally somebody wielding a pickax and roughly meaning a wrecker.

Mr. Cossiga was born on July 26, 1928, in Sassari on the island of Sardinia. He was the cousin of Enrico Berlinguer, the late longtime leader of the Italian Communist Party.

After receiving his law degree, Mr. Cossiga soon joined the local Christian Democratic party and rose in its ranks, entering Parliament in 1958 and holding his first position in government as defense undersecretary in 1966.

The turning point of his career came a decade later, when he was made interior minister by then-Premier Moro. As the official in charge of state police forces, he was at the helm of the fight against the left- and right-wing terrorist groups that were bloodying Italy with shootings and bombings. He oversaw a reform of public security forces and organized anti-terrorism departments.

In 1978, Mr. Cossiga played a key role during one of the most dramatic moments in Italy's recent history when the Red Brigades kidnapped Moro.

Often sleeping at his office for 54 days, Mr. Cossiga led feverish but futile efforts to pinpoint where the terrorists were holding Moro.

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