The Italian government, which scored a major victory in the war against terrorism with the freeing last May of kidnaped U.S. Brig. Gen. James Dozier, has described Friday's murder of one of this country's leading police officials "a mortal challenge launched by the Mafia against the democratic state."

The murder of Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, his wife and a bodyguard in Palermo has shocked Italian officials who are equating the impact of the killing with the 1978 kidnap-murder of former premier Aldo Moro by Red Brigades terrorists.

Both Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini and President Sandro Pertini have made public statements linking the killings with the Mafia, although the police have not arrested any suspects in the attack that occurred in central Palermo Friday.

The killings are being viewed by the government as an unprecedented challenge from the Mafia to the government's dwindling authority on the violence-racked island

In April, Mafia gunmen in Palermo murdered Sicilian Communist leader, Pio la Torre, an outspoken critic of the Mafia. Over the last few years a top Christian Democratic politician on the island, an aggressive Palermo police chief and a vigorous attorney general have been among those murdered.

Furthermore, several areas of Sicily have been wracked recently by a struggle between gangs over the control of the multimillion-dollar heroin trade, a conflict that in Palermo alone has taken over 100 lives since January.

The murders of 62-year-old Dalla Chiesa and wife of two months, Emanuela, 32, were described by Spadolini as "a mortal challenge launched by the Mafia against the democratic state."

One of Italy's most-respected public servants, untainted by an ties with any political party, Dalla Chiesa had been handpicked by Spadolini four months ago to lead the fight on the Mafia.

As prefect, or government representative in Palermo, he had shed his Carabinieri general's uniform and adopted a low profile. But there was widespread confidence that Dalla Chiesa's successful experience in fighting Italy's terrorists made him the only man likely to make inroads against the as yet unchallenged Mafia stronghold.

Spadolini, Pertini and other top Italian officials were in Palermo today to attend services for the general and his wife at San Domenico basilica, vowing to continue Dalla Chiesa's struggle against the Mafia.

They were greeted, however, by angry catcalls from the skeptical and demands from a nervous crowd for the death penalty.

There were also harsh words from Palermo's archbishop, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, who blamed the central government for limiting its action to simple talk, decrying "the slow and uncertain actions and decisions of those responsible for the safety of simple citizens, state officials and authorities."

In only four months, Dalla Chiesa had had little time to make significant progress. But he was so outspoken in comparison to his predecessors that in a recent speech for a slain Carabiniere officer in the Sicilian town of Corleone, he openly used the word Mafia, criticizing the so-called "honored society" for cowardice and a taste for murder.

Ever more significantly, he had recently begun an investigation into the economic base of local Mafia power, an operation involving investigations into the financial situations of Mafia suspects or suspected Mafia-front businesses, the onset of which may have marked his death sentence.

Today, in Palermo, Commander General Nicola Chiari of the Treasury Police ordered his forces to intensify tax inquiries into the business affairs of Mafia suspects and to speed up a complex financial investigation given final approval last Thursday after a meeting in Palermo between Dalla Chiesa, local officials and socialist Finance Minister Rino Formica.

In fact, whether by failure or design, the Italian government has repeatedly failed to come to grips with the growing problem of law and order, a laxity that contrasts sharply with recent activism both in antiterrorist activities at home and in foreign policy abroad.

Left-wing parties here have long accused many Italian politicians of connivance with the Mafia. And if the "honored society" has long-standing social roots in Sicilian agricultural society of the past, it is equally true that decades of negligence by Rome towards the Italian south have allowed the Mafia to flourish to such a degree that today many local notables -- politicians, businessmen and state officials -- are believed to be involved. after a meeting in Palermo between Dalla Chiesa, local officials and socialist Finance Minister Rino Formica.

In fact, whether by failure or design, the Italian government has repeatedly failed to come to grips with the growing problem of law and order, a laxity that contrasts sharply with recent activism both in antiterrorist activities at home and in foreign policy abroad.

Left-wing parties here have long accused many Italian politicians of connivance with the Mafia. And if the "honored society" has long-standing social roots in Sicilian agricultural society of the past, it is equally true that decades of negligence by Rome towards the Italian south have allowed the Mafia to flourish to such a degree that today many local notables -- politicians, businessmen and state officials -- are believed to be involved.