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Cossiga, former Italian president and communist foe, dies at 82 after life in politics

ROME (AP) — Veteran politician Francesco Cossiga, who led Italy's fight against domestic terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s but resigned after failing to save the life of a politician kidnapped by the Red Brigades, died on Tuesday. He was 82.

Cossiga had been hospitalized for over a week with heart and respiratory problems. His health took a "drastic" turn for the worse Monday night, and early Tuesday he was put back on life support, Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic said.

Cossiga declared himself "politically dead" in 1978 after the Red Brigades leftist terrorist group assassinated his mentor and friend Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democrats and a former premier, two months after kidnapping him.

But Cossiga went on to lead a vigorous political life for several more years, including as prime minister and president of the republic, Italy's highest office.

As president in the mid-1980s, he used the largely ceremonial, head-of-state role to publicly lambast parliament and the judiciary in what some saw as an effort to spur reform in an increasingly inefficient, moribund postwar system of revolving door coalition governments.

Often accused of harboring political secrets, Cossiga, a staunch U.S. supporter, eventually admitted involvement in a shady Cold War-era, anti-Communist network known as Gladio.

In another murky, never resolved Italian case, Cossiga was premier in 1980 when an Italian domestic jetliner exploded in flight and crashed near the island of Ustica. Among theories for the jet's demise was a bomb planted by domestic terrorists, or an errant U.S. or French missile allegedly fired at a Libyan MiG streaking over the Mediterranean.

Various nicknames marked the stages of Cossiga's political career.

In the 1970s, the "years of lead" marked by a surge of domestic terrorism, leftists scrawled "Killer Kossiga" graffiti on walls. During his presidential years of outspoken — many said out-of-control — criticism, he was dubbed the "picconatore" — literally somebody wielding a pickax and roughly meaning a wrecker.

A constitutional law professor, Cossiga, silver-haired in his latter decades, likened himself to Don Quixote and held a post endowed with largely ceremonial duties in Italy's postwar constitution to the limits.

Many, even his Communist foes, remembered him as a civil servant who always put the good of the state before his own. A "deeply saddened" Pope Benedict XVI prayed for him, Vatican Radio said.

He bade his farewell in four letters addressed to top Italian officials, saying he was always faithful to the republic. "God protect Italy!" wrote Cossiga, a Catholic.

Cossiga was born on July 26, 1928 in Sardinia. He was the cousin of Enrico Berlinguer, the late longtime leader of the Italian Communist Party.

After receiving his law degree, Cossiga soon entered the local Christian Democratic party and rose in its ranks, entering parliament in 1958 and holding his first position in government as defense undersecretary in 1966.

The turning point of his career came a decade later, when he was made interior minister by then-Premier Moro. As the official in charge of state police forces, he was at the helm of the state's fight against the left-wing and right-wing terror that was bloodying Italy with shootings and bombings. He oversaw a reform of public security forces and organized anti-terror departments.

In 1978, Cossiga played a key role during one of the most dramatic moments in Italy's recent history when the Red Brigades kidnapped Moro and held the statesman in hideouts.

Often sleeping at his office, for 54 days Cossiga led feverish but futile efforts to pinpoint where the terrorists were holding Moro.

When Moro's bullet-ridden body was found in the trunk of a car parked in downtown Rome — symbolically left in a street equidistant from the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and those of the Communists — Cossiga resigned.

"I'm politically dead," he was quoted as saying.

But he defended the government's refusal to negotiate the exchange of prisoners demanded by the Red Brigades, even as he knew then that by doing so he "was signing Moro's death sentence."

After a brief stint as premier between 1979 and 1980, Cossiga was elected by parliament as president of the republic in 1985, and once again faced tempestuous times.

The political system that had emerged in Italy after World War II, crippled by corruption and perennial compromise among coalition partners, was struggling to survive. It would soon collapse under the "Clean Hands" kickback scandals of the early 1990s, which swept the Christian Democrats from power and led to the rise of new political forces, including media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's populist movement and the antiestablishment Northern League party.

Cossiga assailed the old system with a vehemence and directness that was unprecedented for an Italian head of state. Supporters said he wanted to spur reform; opponents thought he was overstepping the boundaries of his mandate.

Many thought he had simply gone crazy.

"I am not mad," Cossiga said at the time. "I am the fake madman who speaks the truth."

Calls for his resignation increased after disclosures about Gladio, a guerrilla network coordinated by NATO across Europe to organize resistance in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. In Italy, there was speculation of Gladio's links to a series of unsolved right-wing terrorist attacks in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cossiga denounced his critics as traitors. To foes in the former Communist Party, which at that point had changed its name, he sent a more pointed message: chunks of the Berlin Wall.

Eventually, he did step down as president, leaving his post in April 1992 with two months to go before the end of his seven-year term. The kickback scandals were beginning to unfold.

In a dramatic televised speech, Cossiga said he was "alone" and a "very weak man."

As a senator for life, an honor granted all former presidents, Cossiga remained vocal for years, even as his clout gradually diminished.

He is survived by a daughter, Anna Maria, and a son, Giuseppe, who is a deputy in Berlusconi's conservative coalition. A private funeral will be held in Sardinia, reports said, as he asked in his letters that no state representatives attend the ceremony.