Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated in Vicenza, Italy, on Saturday against the planned expansion of a US military base, an issue which has split Italy's center-left government.
The march, which drew more than 100,000 people from all over Italy, according to the organizers, and at least 40,000 according to police, passed peacefully despite official warnings that "extremists" might foment violence.
The marchers encircled the picturesque city, swirling the flag of the Refoundation Communist Party, the rainbow flag of the pacifist movement and the environmentalists' green standard, as police helicopters hovered overhead.
Banners read "America, No Thanks" and "Bases Go Home," while some sported images of Che Guevara.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi, elected narrowly last April, faces virulent opposition to the base expansion plan from the Communists and Greens within his wide-ranging coalition.
Last month, after great hesitation, Prodi decided not to renege on a pledge by his staunchly pro-US conservative predecessor Silvio Berlusconi to allow the expansion of the base at Vicenza.
Prodi asked party leaders to stay away from Saturday's protest, saying: "You don't demonstrate against yourself."
But he added that if Communists and Greens take part it would "not break the solidarity of the government."
Protester Gino Del Ferraro, 23, said the demonstration was "the new government's first big challenge. ... We students, young people don't feel represented by the Prodi government."
Commenting on the large turnout, political analyst James Walston said by telephone from Rome: "The fact that it was so big means Prodi will have to be that much more careful. There'll be a lot of noise about it," he said, but "It's not going to bring the government down."
Walston said the event was "an embarrassment [for Prodi] -- if you have to tell your under-secretaries not to go to the demo. [But] governments don't fall because they're embarrassed," he added.
Senator Felice Casson of the Democrats of the Left, the largest party in Prodi's coalition, attended the protest, telling the ANSA news agency: "It's a people's demonstration. ... The people of Vicenza need to feel they have outside support."
The political message, he said, was that "people need to take part in decision-making."
The US 173rd Airborne Brigade is currently spread across two sites in Germany and Camp Ederle, on the east side of Vicenza, and Washington wants to consolidate the Brigade here, adding another 1,800 to a contingent of some 2,750 US troops.
Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, flying out of the Vicenza airbase, were among the first troops involved in the Iraq War.
Under the base expansion plan, the brigade will consolidate in Italy by taking in a former military airfield at Dal Molin, on the opposite side of Vicenza from Camp Ederle, at a cost of some US$500 million.
Local and regional authorities are in favor of the plan, but it is fiercely opposed by pacifists, environmentalists and residents, despite the some 1,200 local jobs provided by the base, one of seven US bases in Italy.
The issue is one of several that are troubling bilateral relations since Prodi came to power in May and withdrew Italian troops from Iraq in December.
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