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Pre Election security alert creates climate of fear in Italy

Written by: Staff

ROME, March 23: A US security alert advising Americans of possible pre-election violence in Italy set off a storm of controversy today with the centre-left opposition saying it created a ''climate of fear''.

The United States cited the possible threat of an al Qaeda attack ahead of the April 9-10 ballot and also pointed to the risk of domestic rallies turning violent after opponents of the conservative prime minister rioted in Milan this month.

An nail-bomb injured police and at least 40 people were arrested.

Centre-left leader Romano Prodi, who is accused by his political foes of being weak on terrorism and tolerant of leftist radical violence, called the US ambassador to Italy to demand an explanation.

''The US alert surprised me. It creates a climate of fear and is not needed,'' said Prodi, who is leading in opinion polls.

''He (the US ambassador) told me that it is routine, but I was really taken aback.'' Berlusconi pounced on Prodi, saying he had no right to tell the United States how to advise its citizens.

He also renewed accusations that Prodi's centre left was to blame for the Milan violence and would endanger Italy if elected since it included anti-globalisation leaders in his coalition.

''(Prodi's) outburst is meant to cover up the reality of things -- that the left is the home of people who practice violence,'' Berlusconi said.

''I have the right and the duty to underline the danger of the political left which wishes to bring party leaders to parliament who want to snuff out our opinions by using violence''.

Berlusconi has accused his opponents of sending gangs of thugs to disrupt his rallies and said Italy faced a ''democratic emergency''.

AL QAEDA THREAT A US embassy spokesman in Rome said the State Department had sent out about 70 similar announcements in the past year, including one during the riots in Paris in 2005.

''It does not indicate an elevated threat. But it is simply passing information on to Americans that's available to Italians,'' the spokesman said.

The State Department alert also said that Italy was ''under heightened public threat by al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists'' for its military role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On March 11, 2004 Islamist militants killed 191 people in bomb attacks in Madrid just three days before elections in Spain which saw Iraq war opponent Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ushered into office. He later withdrew troops from Iraq.

Prodi says setting out a timetable for a rapid, phased withdrawal from Iraq will be one of his first duties in office if elected.

Berlusconi's government also plans to withdraw troops this year. But the prime minister's supporters pointed to the State Department alert as proof that Prodi's anti-Iraq stance has heightened Italy's risk.

''It's Prodi, along with the left, that have created this climate of tension,'' said Isabella Bertolini, with Berlusconi's ''Forza Italia'' political party. ''He announced every day the immediate withdrawal of our mission in Iraq.''


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