Britain pledges to stand firm in Iraq as coffins return
By Simon Freeman and agencies

Draped in union flags, the coffins of five British military personnel killed when their helicopter was downed over Basra arrived back in Britain today.

Relatives of the five gathered on the windswept runway at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to watch as the military transport aircraft touched down.

Prayers were said as the coffins were borne to a fleet of waiting hearses to be examined before being released to the families for funerals. There were no speeches. The chaplains’ softly-spoken prayers were drowned out by the solemn strains of the Band of Her Majesty's Britannia Royal Naval College.

The five dead included the first British woman to be killed in the line of duty in Iraq, Flight Lieutenant Sarah Mulvihill, 32. Wing Commander John Coxen, 46, Captain David Dobson, 27, Lieutenant Commander Darren Chapman, 40, and Marine Paul Collins, 21, also lost their lives

Commodore Tony Johnstone-Burt, Royal Navy deputy commander, Joint Helicopter Command, said after the ceremony: "They didn’t die in vain. Their sacrifice in the line of duty has stiffened the resolve of all those on operations and made them even more determined to live up to their memory and finish the job that they’ve started."

Soldiers in the southern port city of Basra paid tribute to their fallen colleagues at a sunset ceremony last night. Among them was the Defence Secretary Des Browne, who made his first, unannounced visit to Iraq in his new role.

Two other British soldiers have been killed in the region since the five soldiers were killed when their Lynx helicopter was hit by a rocket strike on May 6, the culmination of an upsurge in violence against British troops.

Mr Browne, however, said that suggestions the country was disintegrating into civil war were "ridiculous". While Rome announced proposals to withdraw the remaining troops from its force of 3,000, Mr Browne said that the deaths of the soldiers reinforced Britain's committment to "see it through".

He said he was confident that a national unity government would soon be in place to fill the power vaccuum which has fuelled the sectarian insurgency.

He said: "Yesterday evening as I stood at sunset and watched a really dignified service of the repatriation of those five gallant servicemen and women who lost their lives in the Lynx crash, what was going through my mind was the commitment that I must reinforce to deliver what they lost their lives to achieve.

"And that is to allow the Iraqi people the right of self-determination against a background of a democratic process. It is not rose-coloured spectacles optimism, I am not putting the best gloss on things.

"I am saying to you we have a job to do here and we have to see it through because we owe it to the Iraqi people and particularly we owe it to those of our servicemen and other people who have lost their lives in achieving this."

Mr Browne was due to tour frontline units in the area during a two-day tour which he hopes will give him a thorough understanding of the situation.

His statements come less than a week after Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fry, the deputy coalition commander and the most senior UK general in Iraq, said a phased withdrawal was likely to begin "in the pretty near future".

In Basra today, the violence continued as Major-General Hassan Suwadi, the city's police chief, escaped a car bomb assassination attempt outside his home. Mr Suwadi had become involved in a high-profile dispute with local representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most important Shia cleric.

Meanwhile in Baghdad hopes were mounting that the five-month deadlock which has paralysed Iraq's parliament was close to being resolved with reports that Nouri al-Maliki, the new Prime Minister, is on the verge of naming a broad-based coalition government.

Under a constitutional deadline, he has until Monday to present his cabinet to parliament. The Speaker said yesterday that parliament expected to vote on the government on Saturday. Questions still remain over control of the contentious interior and defence departments.

As the politicians continued their arguments on the key portfolios, the daily roll call of bloodshed continued in the capital. Thirteen people were killed in two attacks and officials were trying to rescue 15 members of the national tae kwondo martial arts squad, kidnapped as they drove through a rebellious desert region for training abroad

Four US soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle northwest of the capital.

But, as Britain bravely stands firm, another Continental country cowardly runs away. This time, it's Italy who has run from Iraq, a country not know for its military prowess since about 2000 years ago. Its new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is the exact opposite than Berlusconi was - anti-American, anti-War, pro-Euro currency and anti-Free Trade -

Times Online May 18, 2006

Prodi begins to dismantle Berlusconi legacy
By Jenny Booth and agencies

An Italian soldier in Iraq.

Romano Prodi promised today to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq, saying that the allied invasion had been a grave mistake.

Signor Prodi was making his first speech as Italian Prime Minister to his country's Senate, where tomorrow he faces a no confidence vote, a mere 48 hours after he was sworn in.

"We consider the war and occupation in Iraq a grave error that hasn’t solved but has complicated the problem of security," he said. "Terrorism has found a new base, and new excuses for internal and external terrorist action."

As opposition leader, Signor Prodi opposed the war in Iraq and had said during the election campaign that the remaining troops would be pulled out "as soon as possible".

The government of Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative former prime minister, sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq to help reconstruction after Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003.

The move was unpopular with Italians, and the contingent is already being pulled out gradually. Withdrawal is due be completed by the end of the year, unless Signor Prodi speeds it up.

Controversy over the troop deployment flared when 19 Italian carabinieri and nine Iraqis died as a suicide car bomber attacked the Italian military police base in Nasiriyah in November 2003.

The row was fuelled in February 2005, when US troops shot dead Nicola Calipari, an Italian secret service agent, at a security checkpoint in Baghdad as he escorted an Italian woman hostage to safety.

Today he did not give a precise timeline for the withdrawal, saying only it would happen in consultation with Iraqi authorities.

Signor Prodi was today moving to stamp his own authority and policies on government.

As part of this process he is expected in the coming days to signal a reverse on several of Signor Berlusconi's pet projects - including the enormous, €4 billion project to link the Italian mainland with the island of Sicily via a bridge over the Straits of Messina.

The contract was awarded at the end of last year in one of the last actions of the Berlusconi government, but construction has yet to begin in earnest.

Richard Owen, Rome Correspondent of The Times, said that the new government was also likely to reverse the country's stance on social issues which, under Signor Berlusconi, were strongly influenced by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The secular, left-wing parties which form the huge majority of Signor Prodi's Government are urging him to give legal recognition to civil partnerships and to ease restrictions on fertility treatment imposed by Berlusconi.

Whereas Berlusconi and the Right pretty much followed the Vatican line, and Prodi is himself a Catholic, his coalition contains several parties which pride themselves on a secular outlook, such as the former Communists of the Democratic Party of the Left, and Emma Bonino's The Rose In The Fist party," said Owen.

He added: "Except for the small Christian Democratic faction, the whole of the Left resents what they see as the Vatican's interference in Italian affairs. The Vatican is after all a foreign state. Italy may be a Catholic country, but it has previously approved both divorce and abortion. President Napolitano - himself a former Communist - made a point of stressing the separation of church and state in Italy in his inauguration speech on Monday."

Other controversial Berlusconi laws which may come under scrutiny are the changes to the statute of limitations, which protected the former Prime Minister from prosecution on several occasions.

Signor Prodi faces a difficult task, holding together a fractious coalition that includes a spectrum of views from centrists to the hard left, while pushing through his policies despite a wafer-thin majority of two in the Senate. He must also try to solve Italy's urgent economic problems.

The Prime Minister said in today's Senate speech however that he would not rush into "extraordinary measures" to cut the budget deficit. "There is no more space for (budget) corrections achieved through extraordinary manoeuvres," he said. He said his government was committed to fiscal consolidation.

Ratings agencies Standard & Poors and Fitch have both indicated that they will downgrade Italy’s public debt unless the new government quickly sets out a strategy to correct wayward public finances.

The budget deficit reached 4.1 per cent of gross domestic product last year, the highest level since 1996, and public debt rose to 106.4 per cent of GDP, the first increase since 1994.

Signor Prodi has appointed Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, a respected economist from a neutral political background, as the country’s new economy minister. His task is to revive Italy’s ailing economy while cutting its debt and deficit to conform with European monetary union rules.

The stagnant economy and ballooning budget deficit probably cost Signor Berlusconi the election, although his Forza Italia party remains the country’s largest and is an opposition force to be reckoned with. While Signor Prodi is expected to win tomorrow's confidence vote, he faces a stern task in the months to come.

On a different topic, Signor Prodi also vowed today to do everything in his power to help make Europe a strong and unified force on the international scene, but was careful not to sideline the United States. "And also to consolidate and enrich ... the historic alliance with the United States of America," he said.

He added that his Government would participate in anti-terror operations only if they were properly sanctioned by international organisations, such as the United Nations. "We are convinced participants in the war against terrorism, even militarily, when it is legitimised by an international organization to which we belong."