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Italians Observe Day of Mourning for Victims of Iraq Bombing - 2003-11-18

Italians are observing a national day of mourning and held the funerals of the 19 victims of the truck bombing last week in Iraq. Thousands of people turned out for the solemn mass at Saint Paul's basilica. Italians across the country watched it live on television.

Italian flags flew from many balconies in Rome and church bells tolled as horse guards escorted the army trucks which carried the 19 wooden coffins to the city's second largest church. They went from the Vittoriano monument, where the public paid its last respects to the dead, to Saint Paul's basilica, where the funeral was held.

Helicopters hovered above as hundreds of thousands of Italians lined the streets and gathered in the square in front of the church.

Many clapped and threw flowers as the coffins, wrapped in the Italian tri-color, were driven by. Others wept.

Relatives of the victims, military and political authorities took their seats inside. The head of Italy's bishops conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini presided over the funeral service. He said "we are celebrating this mass and state funeral for the fallen of the terrorist attack in Nassiriyah, with our faith intact in God." He also expressed gratitude to the fallen soldiers for their sacrifice.

In his homily Cardinal Ruini said "we will not flee from terrorist assassins, but we will face them with courage, determination and energy." He said Italy is committed to safeguarding human co-existence among peoples of different culture and religion.

As the names of the victims were read out, applause broke out inside the basilica. The prayers of the soldier and carabiniere were also read out during the service.

Italy was brought to a standstill as the nation paid its emotional tribute to the 19 men who died when a truck bomb exploded at the Italian military headquarters in southern Iraq last week. The deaths, Italy's single worst military loss since World War II, shocked the nation.