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Secrecy Surrounds Italian Military Mission in Persian Gulf

February 8, 1991

ROME (AP) _ From a base codenamed Locust ″somewhere on the Arabian peninsula,″ Italian warplanes are bombing Iraqi targets daily. Beyond that, Italians know little of their country’s role in the Persian Gulf War.

The government has put a virtual lid on reporting of Italy’s first combat role in four decades.

A botched initial air mission and controversy over anti-war remarks attributed to the admiral commanding Italy’s naval forces in the gulf have apparently contributed to the near silence.

Subsequent bombing missions have been successful, but the Italian version of Saigon’s 5 o’clock follies - the U.S. military briefings during the Vietnam War - is a short one.

The Defense Ministry holds a briefing at 4:30 p.m. each day, and a genial navy captain ticks off the activities of the Italian force.

The air mission report is confined to two lines.

On Wednesday it said: ″In the past 24 hours another mission was carried out jointly with the multinational forces. The mission, which had a positive result, was conducted in unfavorable weather conditions and required, as the previous ones, midair refueling.″

There was no mention of the targets, or whether they were in Kuwait or Iraq.

Gen. Adolfo Alemanno, chief Defense Ministry spokesman, shrugs his shoulders when reporters complain about the lack of details.

″Italy really is playing a very small role compared to the Americans,″ he said as a way of explanation. ″We only have 10 planes.″

Italy also has six warships in the Persian Gulf with nearly 1,600 men aboard. They were first sent to help enforce the U.N. embargo on trade with Iraq. Now, they escort U.S. carriers and hunt mines.

The Tornados were sent to provide air cover for the fleet, but within hours of Italy’s entry into the war on Jan. 17 the warplanes went into action. The first mission fell apart.

Of the eight planes that took off, one turned back because of mechanical trouble and six because of midair refueling problems. The only Tornado to proceed failed to return to base.

The navigator, Capt. Maurizio Cocciolone, was one of the captured allied airmen paraded in front of TV cameras by the Iraqis. The pilot is still listed as missing.

After the initial mission, Italian commentators raised questions about the air force’s readiness. They noted that the Tornado pilots had not participated in joint allied training missions and lacked experience in in-flight refueling.

The reports angered the military, leading to tensions with the press.

Then came the magazine interview with Vice Admiral Mario Buracchia, quoted as telling the Roman Catholic weekly Christian Family that the allies moved too hastily into war and should have given the trade embargo more time to work.

Buracchia claimed his remarks were distorted, and the navy rushed to his defense. But Buracchia asked to be relieved of command and the request was accepted immediately.

Suddenly Italian reporters in the gulf complained they had lost access to Italy’s troops, that the pilots were off-limits and only their commander could speak to the press.

Enrico Jacchia, a defense affairs specialist, says early criticism of the Italian pilots was unfair, noting that they initially were assigned to protect ships - not carry out bombing raids from a base far from Kuwait.

″They have adapted very well and very fast,″ Jacchia said.

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