Italy's Draghi to meet Biden as coalition frets over arms to Ukraine

·2 min read

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi heads to Washington on Tuesday to meet U.S. President Joe Biden against an awkward domestic backdrop, with coalition leaders voicing growing dissent over supplying more weapons to Ukraine.

Former premier Giuseppe Conte, whose 5-Star Movement is the largest party in parliament, has called for Draghi to seek a diplomatic solution to the war rather than send "heavier and more lethal weapons" that Conte says risk fuelling the conflict.

Draghi, who has taken a tough line on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, ignored Conte's requests for him to address parliament before the Washington trip to clarify the Italian position that he planned to present to Biden.

Opinion polls show that in Italy - unlike in Europe's other G7 states Britain, France, and Germany - there is little public support for sending weapons to Ukraine.

On Saturday, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, another major stakeholder in Draghi's coalition, took the same stance as Conte over military support for Kyiv.

"More weapons to Ukraine? No. They would mean more death, more war, more famine," tweeted Salvini, who before this year used to heap praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Even the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) which has so far been most supportive of Draghi's tough line, is showing signs of internal division and a gradual shift of position.

"Draghi should tell Biden not to heighten tensions," prominent PD lawmaker Graziano Delrio said on Sunday, adding that a negotiated settlement was the only viable option and "the Americans ... must not think there can be a winner".

PD leader Enrico Letta told Corriere della Sera daily on Monday that Europe "mustn't allow ourselves to be led by the United States" and called for the five largest EU countries to go first to Kyiv and then Moscow in a push for peace.

It remains to be seen whether these tensions will affect Draghi's approach to the war or, as some commentators suggest, 5-Star or the League may quit the coalition ahead of a national election due early next year.

Draghi's three-day trip to Washington, his first since taking office 15 months ago, will focus on the Ukraine conflict and preparations for G7 and NATO meetings next month, an Italian government source said.

With Italy heavily dependent on Russian gas, energy security is sure to be on the agenda and Draghi will be accompanied by Claudio Descalzi, the head of Italian oil and gas company Eni.

Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, will also meet U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and receive the Atlantic Council's 2022 Distinguished Leadership Award from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

(Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alison Williams)

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