* Rome to co-host international conference on Libya
* PM Renzi at odds with EU allies over bombing Syria
* Criticised at home, keen to be pro-active on world stage
By Steve Scherer
ROME, Dec 11 (Reuters) - With foreign powers firmly focused on battling Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq, Italy is trying to drag international attention back to Libya to secure a deal there aimed at ending four years of violence and chaos.
At odds with its major Western allies over the need for military intervention in Syria, Rome has called for a new strategy to deal with Islamist extremism and will co-host an international conference on Sunday to discuss the Libyan crisis.
Italy has good reason to be worried by the conflict in Libya, its former colony, which lies less than 300 km (190 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Not only has the mayhem enabled Islamic State militants to gain a powerful foothold in the North African oil producer, it has also stoked the migrant crisis, with some 300,000 people arriving in Italy since last year on boats bound from Libya.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has declined to join a U.S.-led coalition that is bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, pointing to the example of NATO’s 2011 air assault against Libya, which helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi but then ushered in years of unresolved civil strife.
“We do not agree on the need of intervening (in Syria)without a strategy for what comes next because we have seen what happened in Libya,” Renzi said in Rome on Thursday. “We cannot trust in instinctive, emotional, short-term reactions.”
Italy has not ruled out eventual military strikes on Islamic State in Libya, but first wants specific authorisation from the United Nations. It is also anxious that a U.N.-sponsored deal aimed at forging a national unity agreement between Libya’s two rival administrations does not unravel.
“We’re trying to build international consensus for a unity government in Libya,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will co-host the Rome talks, but expectations for any breakthrough are extremely low.
However, the fact that Italy is hosting such a conference and proving active on the international stage will nonetheless be a boost for Renzi, who has faced fierce criticism from foes over his stance on Syria and is eager to appear pro-active.
“I condemn the Italian government for cowardice and hypocrisy,” opposition Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said this week. “While the Russians are there (in Syria), the French are there, the English are there, the Germans are there, in time honoured fashion Renzi is neither here nor there.”
Renzi has stoutly defended his decision, saying Italy had forces stationed in 18 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. “If being a protagonist means playing at running after other people’s bombardments, then I say ‘no thank you’,” Renzi told Corriere della Sera last Sunday.
With Renzi viewed for years more as a follower than a leader on the world stage, his comments raised eyebrows, as did Italy’s unexpected decision this week to hold up the extension of EU economic sanctions against Russia.
The move was clearly appreciated by Moscow, which indicated that it was ready to help Italy resolve the Libya crisis.
“I understand how important the problem of Libya is for Italy, both for geographic and historical reasons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Italian reporters this week. “We are ready to help,” he was quoted as saying.
Libya and Russia are important trading partners for Italy.
National oil producer Eni is the largest foreign producer by volume still present in Libya, while Italy imports about half of its natural gas needs from Russia. Russia is also an important market for Made in Italy clothing and leather goods, according to data on recent flows.
Renzi’s decision to push for an EU debate on the Russian sanctions was a wise overture to a needed ally in the Middle East, Alastair Crooke, a British analyst and founder of Conflicts Forum in Beirut, told Reuters.
“Italy has done more than question the usefulness of sanctions. Italy has put down a substantial marker. Europe needs Russia to resolve issues in Syria and elsewhere,” he said. (With additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome and Stephen Jewkes in Milan; editing by Crispian Balmer and Estelle Shirbon)