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Italy to Start Iraq Troop Pullout in Fall
Published on Friday, July 8, 2005 by the Associated Press
Italy to Start Iraq Troop Pullout in Fall
by Alessandra Rizzo
 

Italy plans to begin withdrawing some of its troops from Iraq in September, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Friday.

Speaking at the end of the G-8 summit, Berlusconi said the withdrawal plans could change because they depend on security conditions on the ground and denied it was linked to any terrorist threats against Italy.

"We will begin withdrawing 300 men in the month of September," said Berlusconi, who has come under increasing pressure in Italy over his support for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

He said the partial pullout would not compromise security for the remaining Italian troops or the zone of southern Iraq under their control.

Berlusconi, a staunch ally of President Bush, sent 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. The contingent is based in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

In recent months, Italian officials have gone back and forth on when a withdrawal might begin. Berlusconi had said September was a possibility, but Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini then talked of early 2006.

On Friday, Berlusconi said he has spoken "several times" to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about starting to withdraw Italy's contingent as Iraqi security forces become increasingly capable of securing the territory.

Iraq "must come to a point where it must guarantee its own security," the Italian leader told reporters.

Relations between Washington and Rome have been strained in recent months — first by the killing of an Italian intelligence agent by American soldiers in Iraq and then arrest warrants issued by an Italian court that is accusing 13 purported CIA operatives of kidnapping a militant Egyptian cleric from Italy and sending him to Egypt.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he was sure that any force changes by Italy in Iraq "will be done fully in coordination with the multinational force."

"As we have said before, we very much appreciate the firm and steadfast support that the Italians and Italian government has provided to the operation in Iraq, to the course of building a more free and prosperous country and in helping the Iraqis move forward," he said.

Pressure on Berlusconi has been mounting, even from within his own conservative coalition.

Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli of the right-wing Northern League party said Friday the time had come for the United Nations to begin discussing "the progressive withdrawal of troops, beginning with our contingent, perhaps by September."

"It's evident that after New York, Madrid and London, Italy represents the most probable next objective of the terrorists," he said.

Berlusconi said Italy is a potential target, but added, "It could happen to us as it could happen to another country."

Berlusconi indicated that the intention to start pulling the troops out was not the consequence of threats against Italy or himself that appeared recently on the Web, saying that he had "grown used to them, even though I do not underestimate these threats."

A group calling itself "The Secret Organization of al-Qaida in Europe" — which claimed responsibility for Thursday's bombings in London — said the attacks were a punishment for British involvement in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

© Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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