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Italy’s prime minister cast doubt Wednesday on the U.S. Army’s planned expansion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza with comments he made to the country’s Chamber of Deputies.

Romano Prodi told lawmakers that the expansion of the base now is under consideration, contradicting the approval once assured to the U.S. government under the former government headed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Prodi said his government “intends to reconsider the project in its entirety with the USA, with the involvement of local bodies,” according to an online report by Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, an Italian news wire service.

Though the news report did not refer to it by name, the expansion is the use of the Dal Molin airfield, including additional offices and housing for U.S. personnel. There is no room for expansion at Caserma Ederle, the current home of the brigade and the Southern European Task Force (Airborne).

Vicenza’s mayor, Enrico Hullweck, lashed out at Prodi on Thursday, calling the prime minister’s remarks political “lies and demagogy” that contradicted Prodi’s own government.

“Two days ago, the undersecretary of defense said [negotiations] were in the final stages, and only a strong ‘no’ from the local government would have stopped the work,” Hullweck, a member of Berlusconi’s center-right political party Forza Italia, said in a statement.

“The same Prodi, who did not respond to my letters, says still that everything is under consideration, therefore it is absurd to ask for an opinion of the local representatives on plans that still are not definite,” Hullweck continued.

“Let’s stop with the lies, because the community never hid what the press has always known: a hypothesis transfer of 1,600 men,” Hullweck wrote, referring to the estimated number of U.S. Airborne soldiers who would make up the brigade expansion.

Asked for reaction to Prodi’s statement, Master Sgt. Todd Oliver from the SETAF public affairs office said SETAF “is working with the U.S. Embassy, Italian government and people of Vicenza on this project. While we cannot comment on specific statements by Italian officials, I can say we intend to continue working closely with all those concerned regarding this issue.”

Andrea Nativi, editor of the Italian defense journal Rivista Italiana Difesa, said Prodi was leaving himself plenty of room to maneuver with “a clever political move.” Nativi said Prodi is obviously appealing to members of the far left of his coalition, some of whom oppose the U.S. presence in Italy.

A review might determine that the Italians would proceed as they had before. “Or maybe there will be some cosmetic adjustments,” Nativi said during a telephone interview.

He said that as long as there is strong local support, it is unlikely Prodi would oppose the expansion entirely.

“There is no reason at the moment to be alarmed,” Nativi said. “He did not say, ‘We’re going to oppose it.’”

The former U.S. ambassador to Italy, Mel Sembler, told Stars and Stripes in April 2005 that an agreement to use the base had been reached in principle. But the two countries have been discussing the details on and off since then.

Though no one with the U.S. military will say so on the record, it’s believed that not getting access to Dal Molin — or another similar facility — could force the unit out of Vicenza and possibly out of Italy entirely.

As it stands, only two of the brigade’s six battalions will be based in Vicenza during the next several years. The other four will be based in Bamberg and Schweinfurt in Germany until there are facilities for them — at Dal Molin or elsewhere — in Vicenza.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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