Libya War: Italy Wants Out; Will U.K., France Leave Too?

Italy’s foreign minister is now speaking out against NATO’s mission. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

Rodrigo Abd / AP Photo

In March, Italy reluctantly joined the NATO-led mission to implement a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians, offering up seven airbases and it’s own Tornado fighter jets for the cause. But now that the mission has turned into a full-fledged offensive to oust Muammar Gaddafi at any cost, Italians want out. “An immediate cessation of hostilities is necessary,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Wednesday. "We have seen the effects of the crisis and also of NATO action.”

Frattini was referring to the accidental slaughter of nine civilians due to a “weapons malfunction” when NATO troops errantly hit a residence in Tripoli last Sunday. Frattini also pointed to a “serious humanitarian crisis” and the need to open a safe corridor for humanitarian aid that is currently being blocked from reaching remote parts of the country. NATO took full blame for the deaths, but vowed to stay the course, effectively brushing off Italy’s pleas for a ceasefire. "We do our best to avoid civilian casualties but unfortunately sometimes accidents happen,” said NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. “But we shall continue and see [the mission] through to the end."

Italy has been in an increasingly tenuous position between the North African nation and Europe. The tight bromance between rogue leaders Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi spawned a lucrative friendship between the two countries and positioned Italy as an intermediary between Gaddafi and other European leaders. That all worked well when befriending Gaddafi was in Europe’s best interest, but when the Libyan leader started stifling his protesters with gunfire as part of the Arab Spring uprisings, Europe stepped away, effectively leaving Italy hanging in the balance.

As one of Libya’s primary trade partners, Italian businesses have suffered millions of euros in lost infrastructure investments and oil deals since the air strikes began. And as the nearest shore to Europe, Italy has also been ground zero for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict. It is increasingly difficult for Italy to justify continuing airstrikes on Libya from Italian shores and then complaining about the influx of refugees the bombardment creates.

Berlusconi also faces intense pressure from members of his own coalition, including the Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, who have given the prime minister a series of ultimatums if he wants to maintain their support—including getting Italy out of Libya. "Pulling out of NATO's Libya mission could save us as much as €1 billion [$1.42 billion],” Bossi told supporters on Tuesday. “It’s not assured that we will go on with Berlusconi unless he listens to our proposals.”

Whatever the motive, Frattini’s calls for peace underlie growing unease among NATO countries about the strength of the coalition and the viability of a long-term war in Libya. Last week, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron had to justify Britain’s involvement in the conflict after one of his top military officers warned that the U.K. could not sustain a long military battle. President Barack Obama is also facing criticism for American involvement. The U.S. House of Representatives are expected to vote on a proposal to cut funding for military action in Libya.

France, which has taken a leading role in the NATO mission with the United Kingdom, dismissed Italy’s concerns and instead called for an intensification of pressure against Gaddafi. They maintain that Gaddafi is using civilians as human shields, and lodging his counter-attacks from mosques. "Any pause is operations would risk allowing him to play for time and to reorganize,” said Bernard Valero of the French Foreign Ministry. “In the end, it would be the civilian population that would suffer from the smallest sign of weakness on our behalf." But with a growing humanitarian crisis and errant civilian casualties, that argument may be increasingly difficult to make.