United Press International
News. Analysis. Insight.
September 22, 2004
UK ambassador sparks Iraq row in Italy
ROME-- A new round of debate about Italy's role in the U.S.-led war against terror erupted after Britain's ambassador to Italy told a
closed-door gathering of Italian and British diplomats that President George W. Bush was the "greatest recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida"
because of a foreign policy that breeds hatred for the United States.
"If there is anyone ready to celebrate (Bush's) eventual re-election it is al-Qaida," Roberts reportedly added. The comments came during
a discussion of which candidate the diplomats would vote for in the U.S. election if they could vote.
The comments are especially poignant coming from the ranking British government official in Italy, since Britain and Italy are
Washington's two strongest allies in Europe.
Italian media took up the statements, which were first reported in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, as a chance to reopen
debate on the topic of Italy's strong support of U.S. policies. Among the countries five largest mainstream newspapers, four ran
editorials in the days after the statements opining that the comments from Sir Ivor Roberts, the British ambassador, simply illustrated a
popularly held viewpoint. Several television and radio talk shows echoed those views.
"Opinion polls have shown for some time that even though the Italian government is firm in its support of the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign
policy that most Italians are against that view," Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, told United Press International. "I've
seen the same kinds of trends in the United Kingdom, and these remarks just give a voice to those views."
Roberts, a 58-year-old career diplomat who previously served as British ambassador in Yugoslavia and Ireland, declined to be
interviewed for this story, but a spokesman for the British embassy in Rome played down the ambassador's comments, telling UPI that
they were taken out context and that they did not accurately represent the views held by Roberts or the British government.
"The comments were made under Chatham House Rules, which means they should not have been quoted or paraphrased," the
spokesman said. "The rules were respected for everything that could give context to what was said, but not for the comments
themselves. The scandal here is about bad journalism on the part of Corriere della Sera, and not about a version of one-man's opinion."
Corriere della Sera, which later ran an editorial seconding Roberts' views, issued a statement saying that it broke with rules dictating
that remarks at the meeting not be quoted because the comments were so "explosive."
In the public sphere, debate has been mixed: highest-level Italian government figures have so far been silent on the issue, but a handful
of parliamentarians from the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have called for an official apology from Roberts, and
at least one has called on Roberts to be dismissed from his post. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reportedly considered removing
Roberts but decided against it.
But support for the ambassador's comments has been more widespread. The center-left Italian newspaper La Repubblica ran an
editorial titled "Someone Had To Say It," and leaders of the political opposition pounced on the debate as proof that the government's
policies were out of tune with most Italians' views. During a radio call-in show in Rome Tuesday, callers supporting Roberts comments
outnumbered those against by a 3-to-1 margin, and discussion of other issues were pushed back to a future program due to the volume
of callers weighing in on the issue.
"This is the first time in months that we have seen such a passionate response" to an issue, the programming director at Talk 103 told
UPI. "The last time was when (President Bush) came to Rome" in June.
Roberts' voice is added to a growing chorus of international dissenters on the effectiveness of the war on terror. U.N. Secretary General
Kofi Annan, in an unusually blunt statement, called the U.S.-led war in Iraq illegal. El Salvador has joined Spain among former U.S. allies
that have in the last six months withdrawn their support for the war in Iraq.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Italy declined to discuss Roberts' remarks or the debate they sparked in Italy, saying only that
there was every indication that "both Britain and Italy remained strong allies and good friends" of the United States.
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