After almost a decade of left-wing terrorism, Italians are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Earlier this week, Italian judges meted out 32 life sentences and another 315 years in prison to 59 terrorists for the killing of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro and 16 others. Four suspects were acquitted.
Although considerably less than what the public prosecutor had requested, the sentences signal a closing chapter in the fight against the Red Brigades and other left-wing terrorists here.
''The Red Brigades' style of terrorism has received a number of mortal blows and it is unlikely it will resurge again with any of the viciousness we have seen,'' said a police chief who helped free United States Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier from his Red Brigades kidnappers last year.
The Red Brigades have not launched any major attacks since the Dozier rescue, which was seen as the turning point in the battle against the terrorists.
''Almost all of them are behind bars now and unless they escape from prison, they aren't going to be in a position to carry out any more attacks,'' added this police source.
According to the Interior Ministry, Italian police and Carabinieri (national police under military command) in 1982 rounded up 945 left-wing terrorists. As of Dec. 15, 1,523 alleged terrorists were in detention.
However, Italian officials are not gloating yet. Police are still searching for 91 more Red Brigades, 58 members of Front Line (an affiliated urban guerrilla group), and 123 other suspected leftist terrorists.
''Until all of them are caught, we cannot say the Red Brigades are finished, '' cautioned an official at the Justice Ministry.
Prison officials continue to keep a close watch on the jailed terrorists to keep them from communicating with members still at large - and from recruiting new members within the prison who are serving light sentences for crimes other than terrorism.
A University of Rome sociologist and terrorist expert, Angelo Bonziani, thinks it is improbable that a new generation of malcontents will turn to armed struggle and replace the ''historic'' Red Brigades leaders now behind bars.
''While the socioeconomic problems that inspired the Red Brigade phenomenon still exist, most young people today are politically disillusioned and prefer dropping out on drugs than turning on to single-minded commitments such as political subversion,'' said Mr. Bonziani.
The Moro murder was not only the Red Brigades' most ignominious crime, it spelled the beginning of the end for the urban guerrillas, who had been terrorizing Italy since the early '70s in a bid to overthrow the democratic order.
Moro was kidnapped in March 1978, on the eve of finalizing his project of bringing the Communists into his government. He was shot 55 days later and his body stuffed in a car trunk near the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party to which he belonged.
''We killed him to put an end to the national solidarity,'' Prospero Gallinari, the terrorist who pulled the trigger on Moro, said during the nine-month trial.
The controversial decision to kill the popular prime minister divided the terrorists among themselves, and alienated many of their numerous sympathizers. It also inspired Italian authorities seriously to meet the Red Brigades' challenge.
Their first breaks came in 1980, when police adopted the concept of plea-bargaining and gained some valuable collaborators.
The ''pentiti law,'' as it is called, became invaluable in cracking the case of General Dozier. The addresses of scores of hide-outs and hundreds of names were subsequently furnished to investigators, which helped investigators in the Moro case.
Antonio Savasta, one of the ringleaders of the Dozier kidnapping, and his girlfriend, Emilia Libera, who both participated in the Moro crime, benefited significantly from this law. Their 16 1/2-year sentences for the Dozier kidnapping have recently been reduced to nine years by an appellate court. But the ''pentiti law'' expires on Jan. 31. The justice minister said it will not be renewed, an indication authorities are confident the Red Brigades will soon be a distant memory.