Italy Rejects Libyan Interference in Cabinet Decisions

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Monday, May 05, 2008

Italy Rejects Libyan Interference in Cabinet Decisions

( - Silvio Berlusconi has yet to take office after being re-elected Italian prime minister, but already the conservative politician faces the possibility of new tensions with some in the Muslim world.

A prominent organization in Libya headed by Muammar Gadaffi's son has called for the incoming government in Rome not to appoint as a minister a politician whose views on Islam have angered Muslims in the past.

Roberto Calderoli served as reforms minister in Berlusconi's last government, but he resigned under pressure in February 2006 after deadly riots at an Italian consulate in Libya's second city, Benghazi.

Libyans who attacked the mission were angry because Calderoli had during a television program displayed a T-shirt depicting one of 12 cartoons satirizing Mohammed, the Muslim prophet, that were at the time at the center of an international furor.

Calderoli, a leading member of the anti-immigration Northern League party which is part of Berlusconi's center-right coalition, could return to the cabinet after the coalition's unexpectedly comfortable Apr. 14 election victory. Berlusconi is expected to be sworn in later this week for a third term as prime minister.

Eleven people were killed and dozens injured when Libyan security forces clashed with rioters throwing rocks and bottles and trying to torch the consulate in Benghazi on Feb. 17, 2006.

The incident was among the most serious to erupt during a period of protests across the Muslim world over the publication in Danish newspapers of the "Mohammed cartoons." People were also killed in protests in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Benghazi rioting occurred after the Gadaffi International Foundation, headed by Saif al-Islam Gadaffi - the Libyan leader's son, and seen by some as a likely successor - issued a statement drawing attention to Calderoli's T-shirt appearance and calling for protests.

At the weekend, the foundation issued a new statement through Libya's official JANA news agency, pointing to the possibility of Calderoli returning to the Italian cabinet.

It accused the Italian politician of being "the true killer of the Libyan citizens" who died during the rioting.

While acknowledging that the Italian prime minister's cabinet appointments were an internal matter, Saif al-Islam Gadaffi said the situation was a serious one: Calderoli's reappointment would have "catastrophic consequences on the Libyan-Italian relations."

Libya is a former Italian colony, and the two countries have strong links. Italy is Libya's biggest trading partner in Europe, and a key customer of Libyan oil and natural gas.

Saif al-Islam Gadaffi's intervention has drawn negative reaction in Italy. Franco Frattini, a top European Union justice official who is set to become Berlusconi's foreign minister, said in a newspaper interview Italy should take into account the concerns raised, but that decisions made by an elected government should be respected.

The man who Frattini will replace, outgoing Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, called the Libyan interference "intolerable," but also expressed the hope that Calderoli would avoid repeating "mistakes" of the past.

Calderoli himself responded coolly to the Libyan statement, saying cabinet choices were up to Berlusconi, who had received his mandate from the Italian people.

When the row erupted over the cartoon T-shirt, Calderoli said the issue of freedom of expression was part of the battle for democracy. Newspapers in Europe and elsewhere were at the time citing similar justifications for republishing the Danish cartoons.

Many Muslims consider images of Mohammed and others they consider as prophets in Islam to be forbidden.

The cartoons made a reappearance in some European newspapers earlier this year - and sparked new protests - after police in Denmark arrested three Muslims accused of plotting to kill one of the 12 original cartoonists.

A bloc of Islamic states that is campaigning to have the "defamation" of religion and prophets outlawed in the international community called the reappearance of the cartoons "a new campaign of hatred," but also called on Muslims to respond calmly.

As in the case of several other European countries, predominantly Catholic Italy has been grappling increasingly in recent years with the challenges of a growing Muslim population, even as its homegrown population shrinks because fertility rates are at well below replacement level.

A new opinion survey in Italy, released last week, shows that a growing number of Italians regard immigration from Muslim countries as a bad thing.

Some 55 percent of respondents in the poll carried out by the Makno research organization said immigration from Islamic countries caused more problems than that from traditionally Christian countries.

In last month's election, the Northern League, which is viewed as the party most opposed to illegal immigration, received its strongest showing in more than a decade, obtaining more than eight percent of the total vote. As such, it is expected to get several cabinet posts in a new Berlusconi government.

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