Al-Qaeda message takes a stab at Berlusconi

Rome - Stinging comments directed at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and attributed to al-Qaeda were widely reported in the Italian press on Monday, just days ahead of a visit to Rome by United States President George Bush.

The message, posted on an Internet site and attributed to Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, the head of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, claims responsibility for the bloody weekend siege at a housing complex in the eastern Saudi oil city of Al-Khobar, in which 19 foreigners and three Saudis were killed.

It says: "Among the crusaders killed there was also an Italian, whose throat was slit as a gift for the Italian government and its leader, a little stupid and arrogant, who is proud of his hostility towards Islam and of having sent troops to fight Muslims at wars like in Iraq and other countries."

The Italian, 25-year-old Antonio Amato, had recently been hired as the head cook at the upmarket Oasis housing compound in Al-Khobar. He had his throat slit along with eight other foreigners.

His death came a day after the funeral of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a contractor who was abducted and killed two weeks ago in Iraq, where Italy has 3 000 troops in the US-led coalition.

Sergio Romano, a former ambassador, wrote in an editorial in the Corriere della Sera daily on Monday: "Whoever used this attack to address threats to the government has very likely followed the news in Italy. He knows that a large section of the political class disapproves of the presence of our troops in Iraq.

"He knows that Bush's visit could provoke hostile demonstrations. He knows that the country was very taxed by the death of Fabrizio Quattroccchi and the soldier Matteo Vanzan, and that mourning for them caused a lot of emotion. And he thinks Italy, more than other countries, is especially vulnerable."

Several radical opposition groups in Italy, which saw up to three million people in the streets of Rome in early 2003 before the war, have announced plans to demonstrate against Bush, and Interior Minsiter Giuseppe Pisanu has said he fears trouble.

The US president, expected on Friday in Rome, has asked for an audience with Pope John Paul II, who opposes the Iraq war.

Bush had to schedule his arrival earlier than planned because the pope is travelling Saturday to Switzerland. The US president will travel on to France for observances of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

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