It's no secret that some of the more dubious intelligence cited by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq ran through Italy. The most infamous case is that of the forged "uranium from Niger" memos that ultimately became a key basis for the administration's mistaken claims that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. A 1998 Italian newspaper report on a purported meeting between an emissary of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden circulated into U.S. intelligence as a key shred of evidence of prewar cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda, since discredited by the September 11 commission.
Italy, of course, was by no means the only U.S. ally to provide dubious Iraq intelligence to Washington. But as two of the more conservative governments in the strained transatlantic alliance, the Bush and Berlusconi administrations have tended to see things eye to eye, at least more so than Washington and some of its more war-skeptical European allies. Italy contributed troops to the U.S.-led alliance invading Iraq, despite the overwhelming unpopularity of that war among the Italian population.
But that unpopularity may finally put the two countries' intelligence relationship at risk. Italy's close cooperation with some of the more controversial practices in the U.S. war on terrorism may be becoming politically untenable for Silvio Berlusconi, facing re-election next year, as a delayed result of the CIA abduction of an Egyptian cleric from Milan two years ago. If the outrage surrounding the case continues, the Italian administration could be forced to distance itself from the United States -- or be forced from office.
On February 17, 2003, a month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq got under way, Hussan Mustafa Omar Nasr, an Egyptian cleric better known as Abu Omar, disappeared from Milan. News reports say that the United States suspected Omar of being a European leader of the Iraq-based terrorist group Ansar al-Islam. Since June 2005, a Milan prosecutor has indicted 19 alleged CIA employees (most identified by their cover names) for allegedly snatching Omar from outside a Milan mosque and bundling him off to Egypt. Since his alleged abduction, Omar has been heard from only once, telling his wife that he had been kidnapped by Italian- and English-speaking agents, flown to Egypt, imprisoned, and badly tortured. Omar is believed to still be in custody in Egypt.
For two years, Italy's counterterrorism police unit, Digos, has been simmering about the snatch job carried out under its nose. It had been closely surveilling Omar for months when Washington
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