Latest reports confirm that 18 Italians and eight Iraqis were killed on Wednesday in an explosion at the headquarters of the Italian Carabinieri military police.

Italian media have been reporting that one Italian and all the Iraqi victims were civilians.

A spokesman for the Carabinieri said nine of the dead Italians were military police and three were from the army.

Two bombers drove a tanker lorry into the base, according to police officers.

AlJazeera's correspondent, quoting qitnesses, reported a booby-trapped truck detonated, destroying tens of houses in the blast.  

Another officer from the paramilitary carabinieri police was reported missing in the explosion and fire, according to official reports from Rome.

Several Italian police officers were reported to be trapped
under rubble.
 The toll is expected to rise.

After the early morning explosion, fire engulfed several
vehicles in a courtyard and an ammunition dump, according to a spokesman for the occupation authorities.

Defiance

Despite the attack, Rome is determined its forces will remain
in Iraq, said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. 

"No intimidation will change our desire to help this country to
rebuild and form a government, in security and freedom," he said. 

Italy has about 2500 troops in Iraq, based mainly in al-Nasiriya.
  
The Italian mission includes ground troops, members of the air force, the police and Red Cross, along with three naval ships.
 

Wednesday's deaths were the first Italian casualties since they joined the US-led occupation in Iraq in June.

"They were sent to an Iraq in flames because the government
wanted to do a favour for the Bush administration without taking risks into consideration"


Pietro Folena,
member of main Italian opposition party, the Democrats of the Left

Members of several Italian opposition parties demanded that the government withdraw its troops from Iraq following the blast.   

"They were sent to an Iraq in flames because the government
wanted to do a favour for the Bush administration without taking risks into consideration," said Pietro Folena of the main opposition party, the Democrats of the Left.

"Now the Italian soldiers must come home. It is the only right thing to do at this moment." Members of other opposition parties made similar demands.

And Pope John Paul II said the bombing attack was a "vile attack" against what he said was a mission of peace.
   
In a strong message to Italy's president, the pope said he
wanted to express his "most firm condemnation" for what he
called the latest in a string of horrifying episodes in the
country.

Despite the attack, Portugal said it was going ahead with plans to send 112 members of its Republican National Guard to serve alongside the Italian Carabinieri in al-Nasiriya, a mainly Shia city.

A spokesman for the guard, Matos Sousa, confirmed that the detachment would leave for Iraq as planned later on Wednesday.

US soldier killed

Meanwhile, two US soldiers were killed in separate attacks late on Tuesday in the capital and north of Baghdad, reported military officials.

More than 150 US soldiers have been killed since US President George Bush declared an end to hostilities on 1 May.

In other news, US troops opened fire on a truck carrying live
chickens near the tense town of Falluja, killing five civilians aboard the vehicle, including a father and his two sons, said relatives said Wednesday. 

Relatives in Falluja say US troops
opened fire at their family

The shooting took place at a roadblock on Tuesday night, they said. 

On Wednesday, reporters saw US troops delivering one body from an Army ambulance to waiting families. In the morgue, reporters saw several bodies with what appeared to be gunshot wounds. 

A spokesman for the US military in Baghdad had no immediate information on the attack. 

Council member shot at

And US forces also opened fire on a car carrying a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said occupation authorities.
Wednesday. The council member escaped injury but the driver was hurt.

Occupation authorities described the incident as a mistake and said an investigation was underway. 

Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, an independent Shia Muslim cleric, was not hurt when US forces mistook his car for a stolen vehicle while he was being driven. 
 
"A US forces spokesman apologised to Mr Bahr al-Ulum and
to the Governing Council," according to a statement issued by military authorities. 

Bahr al-Ulum, an elderly scholar who returned from exile in
London and assumed a seat on the US-appointed council, has
been a critic of US policy in Iraq, saying Iraqis should assume a larger security role.

Basra violence

As the violence spills over from Baghdad, a string of blasts has also shattered the relative calm of the southern, British-occupied city of Basra.

Two bomb explosions in the port city’s downtown area killed four Iraqis on Tuesday, including two policemen, and wounded nine others.

On Sunday, a British military vehicle was damaged when a  roadside bomb went off. A few days earlier, a group of men was arrested after hurling hand grenades at a school without causing injury.

 

British occupation troops admit that there has been an increase in violence. Instead of blaming it on the resistance, they say the tensions are due to “former regime loyalists”.

Mainly Shia southern Iraq was oppressed under Hussein’s government and supported the US-led war to topple him.