Italian government officials say they will appeal a regional court’s decision to suspend the expansion of a U.S. military base in Vicenza.

Late last week, a Vento regional administrative court suspended the expansion project for the U.S. Army base in Vicenza, supporting a lawsuit filed the Codacons, a group of citizens and business leaders opposed to the expansion.

The court cited several reasons for the suspension, including the lack of a formal, written agreement between the Italian and U.S. government to let the U.S. Army enlarge the base and use the Dal Molin airfield, according to the 13-page ruling. Other reasons included the lack of formal public input and documentation of adequate environmental impact studies.

But Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa — who said Saturday he agrees with decisions made by previous governments — intends to back the government’s appeal of the Vento court ruling.

The decision to file an appeal now rests with the prime minister, a defense ministry spokesman said Monday. Officials from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s office did not respond Monday to repeated calls for comment.

U.S. Army officials declined to comment Monday on the court’s ruling, saying it was inappropriate for the U.S. government to weigh in on a "matter that is between the Italian courts and the Italian government," said Maj. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Southern European Task Force (Airborne), headquartered in Vicenza.

However, the ruling has had no immediate impact since construction has yet to start, Dillon said. "The churning of dirt has not begun and there’s no impact on anything right now."

The issue has been complicated by wrangling among opposing Italian political parties.

Expansion plans were given the nod of approval years ago by the Italian government headed by the conservative Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of the U.S. administration.

When his successor, center-left Romano Prodi took over in May 2006, anti-expansion supporters sought to capitalize on his liberal leanings to ax the plans. But that didn’t happen and, in January 2007, Prodi said his government would follow the decision made by Vicenza’s council and Berlusconi’s government to allow plans to move forward.

Prodi was unseated earlier this year and, in April, Berlusconi made a comeback for a third term.

In March, the U.S. awarded a 245 million euro contract to two Italian companies to build offices, work spaces and recreational areas for elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Work was supposed to start this summer and anticipated to be completed sometime in 2012.

The expansion would bring together the entire 173rd, currently scattered between Italy and Germany, increase the soldier population to about 5,000 from about 2,900, and give the U.S. use of Dal Molin airfield. Two battalions and the headquarters of the 173rd are based in Vicenza. Three other battalions are in Bamberg, Germany, and a fourth is in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Though newly elected Vicenza Mayor Achille Variati supports the court’s ruling, he does so because of issues he has with the Italian government, not the United States, his spokesman, Jacopo Bulgarini d’Elci, said Monday.

"This is not about anti-American sentiments," d’Elci said. "The citizens of Vicenza have not been formally heard on this. The mayor wants to hold a referendum, a referendum that will have value, and not as something symbolic."

Variati hopes to call for an October referendum.

Likewise, the mayor backs the court in calling for environmental impact studies, echoing concerns of local citizens regarding traffic and land use.

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