Italian peace movement facing an uphill march to block missile sites

The Italian peace movement has begun to dust off its placards and slogans in preparation for another of its sporadic attempts at halting the installation of the NATO missiles in Sicily.

Thousands of marchers piled into hundreds of buses in Palermo on Saturday and began the long trek to the disarmament talks in Geneva, where they have been promised a hearing by both teams of negotiators. Demonstrations in several Italian cities were held along the way.

''It's one of our last chances,'' says Aldo de Matteo, vice-president of the Italian Christian Workers Association (ACLI). ''If agreement isn't reached soon, those new missiles will be in Comiso (Sicily) by the end of the year.''

The Geneva march is the first large-scale peace effort undertaken in Italy since thousands flocked to Comiso to protest the ground-breaking of the missile site in April last year. Significantly, the impetus for the march did not originate with the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the largest group in the movement, but with the Roman Catholic ACLI.

ACLI's half million members come from all walks of life and all political parties. There were even Christian Democrats participating in the march, says Mr. de Matteo. As a party, the Christian Democrats have strongly supported the installation of the missiles.

Founded by resistance fighters in 1944, the ACLI has always been devoted to the cause of justice and peace. But the US Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on war and peace and the Italian bishops' endorsement gave ACLI a fresh boost. Whether ACLI can in turn revitalize the sagging peace movement, however, remains doubtful.

''The popular sentiment against the missiles just isn't here,'' complained one peace organizer.

With elections in June, the Italian Communists have their own reasons for rekindling the peace initiative. Along with unemployment it will be the main appeal to the youth, who in recent years have grown disaffected by politics, says Renzo Gianotti, the PCI central committee member heading the disarmament section.

But there is growing recognition by both the PCI and ACLI that the disarmament issue will not be solved by mass movements. ''The missile race can only be stopped by an agreement in Geneva,'' says Federigo Argentieri, a motivating force in the Italian peace movement. By the same token, Mr. Argentieri says, ''It's an illusion to think the Soviets will ever abandon the arms race because of economic pressures.''

Almost since its tardy birth, the Italian peace movement has been lethargic at best and it never achieved the impact of its counterparts in Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands. During the course of 1983, the movement - which has been dominated by the PCI - so dwindled that it became a target of criticism by other peace groups.

But the Italians have set themselves apart from the other European groups on a fundamental issue: unilateral disarmament.

''Certainly we want an Italy without missiles. We want a Europe with fewer missiles. But Italy is not on the moon. We aren't for de-nuclearizing Italy regardless of what else happens in Europe. We are for disarmament on a global scale,'' explained Mr. Gianotti.

The PCI has wanted to demonstrate its independence from Moscow, so it has waged a two-front attack on the missile issue. The Soviet SS-20s aimed at Europe came under almost as much fire as the cruises and Pershings NATO is getting ready to install. ''In the European theater, there is no doubt which side has the upper hand,'' says a young Communist leader. ''The Soviets even admitted it themselves.''

Sources inside the PCI say the party's moderate stance is a bid to counter a strong pro-Soviet wing of the party and the peace movement led by Gen. Nino Pasti. A former deputy commander for NATO South, Pasti is now dubbed the ''Warsaw Pact general'' within the PCI for his pro-Soviet positions.

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