Friday was unseasonably sunny in the Italian island of Sardinia befitting the warm send-off which took place there for local soldiers before deploying to Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lieutenant general Luigi Francesco De Leverano from the Italian army oversaw the deployment ceremony as military, government and religious officials representing the autonomous region of Sardinia flocked to Sassari’s Gonzaga barracks to bid farewell to troops stationed in the island.
The exact number of soldiers to be deployed to Libya remains unknown, but we know that they come from the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment, a mechanized infantry force made up of 750 soldiers which is part of the Sassari Brigade and is based in Sardinia’s Capo Teulada. The force is expected to take over from the 9th Alpini Regiment that has been leading the task force protecting the Italian military hospital in Misrata.
The hospital was established in September 2016 to treat Misratan fighters after forces from the western Libyan city suffered heavy casualties during the US-led Operation Odyssey Lightning which in December 2016 succeeded in driving the Islamic State from Sirte.
On 14 September 2016, the Italian defence ministry announced the deployment of 300 soldiers to Misrata as part of a military operation dubbed ‘Hippocrates’ which Italian authorities said it was based on an official request from the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and on the UN Security Council Resolution 2022. However, one year after the defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte, Libyans on social media began referring to the Italian field hospital as a disguised military base.
In July, protestors took to the streets of several Libyan cities to burn the Italian flags in response to media reports about an Italian plan to launch a naval mission in Libya’s territorial waters. To express their resentment, protestors in Tripoli raised posters of Omar Mukhtar who led the Libyan resistance against the Italian occupation in the early twentieth century.
This hostility toward Italy seems to be driven by her decision to only strike security deals with the GNA. For despite being recognised internationally as the country’s sole legitimate government, in Libya itself, GNA’s legal legitimacy remains contested and its influence limited, precisely to the region between Sirte and the Tunisian border. As if things were not bad enough for Italy, the House of Representatives, Libya’s internationally recognized parliament, has not only refused to endorse her military cooperation with the GNA, but also denounced it repeatedly in public statements.
To defuse the tension, the Italian government rolled out the red carpet for Khalifa Hifter, the general commander of the Libyan National Army whose forces control most of Libya’s eastern region, and offered to open a visa application centre in Tobruk, the seat of the Libyan parliament.
It is publicly known that special forces from foreign countries including the US, France and the UK have taken part in the war against terrorist groups in Sirte and Benghazi, yet it’s usually the Italians who continue to find themselves in hot water for insisting to assume leadership over the international assistance to Libya.
And as evidence on its growing military presence in Libya continues to emerge, it is not quite clear yet how can Italy assure regular Libyans that its forces are not here to revive the colonial past.