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Iraqi Sailors Sip Espresso on Italy’s Riviera Tue Mar 25,11:05 AM ET Add Oddly Enough – Reuters to My Yahoo!

By Rachel Sanderson

LA SPEZIA, Italy (Reuters) – Tourists hoping to catch the first rays of the Italian summer could find themselves rubbing shoulders with a group of Iraqi sailors sipping espresso at one of the waterfront cafes on Italy’s Riviera.

Italy impounded Iraq (news – web sites)’s two most modern warships, the bulk of its navy, 12 years ago under an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations (news – web sites) following the Gulf War (news – web sites).

An Italian firm had just finished building the ships but the embargo came into force before they could be delivered.

The 70-meter missile-and-gun boats have sat rusting at the back of La Spezia harbor ever since but the Iraqi navy sends 12 sailors a year to man the grounded and ammunition-less vessels. With the crews sea-faring rituals whittled down to hoisting the red, white and black flags the sailors are left with plenty of time to sample Italy’s ‘dolce vita.’

“The crew are not prisoners. They can go around the town when they want. It’s the ships that can’t go anywhere,” La Spezia spokesman Francesco Pilato told Reuters. “They started the engines once for about 15 minutes about 12 years ago. Until the embargo is lifted they are not leaving.”

“They often come and sit here and have an espresso after they’ve been shopping,” Diana Pinto, owner of the Pink Benny cafe near the portside said, serving ice cream to a group of teenagers. “No-one has ever had a problem. They are peaceful.”

La Spezia, one of several naval bases in Italy and a key NATO (news – web sites) installation, is cupped in a bay with a backdrop of palm trees. The slate-gray warships are visible from the road that sweeps up behind the port to tourist hot spot Cinque Terre.

The Iraqi flag fluttering in the midst of red, white and green Italian tricolor had been a frequent sight, locals said.

But since the start of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, Saddam’s ships and their regalia have been tucked just out of view in the dry docks. The crew are still strolling around town, although a little less often than usual, locals said.

Over the weekend, Italy expelled four Iraqi diplomats. But under international law, the Iraqi ships are considered Iraqi territory, an Italian navy spokesman said.

“The ships, the Iraqis are part of the landscape here,” resident Vittorio Ricci said, shielding his eyes from the bright March light and looking out over the harbor to the town beyond where many of the shuttered windows were hung with rainbow-colored peace flags.

“A ‘Little Iraq’ in Italy — but completely peaceful.”