- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

LONDON — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi backtracked yesterday, saying a commitment to begin withdrawing his country’s 3,300 troops from Iraq by September was subject to change and could be postponed.

“It was only my hope. … If it is not possible, it is not possible. The solution should be agreed with the allies,” Mr. Berlusconi said after his remarks on Tuesday created consternation in Washington and London.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom the Italian leader had named as concurring with his decision to withdraw, insisted in London that Mr. Berlusconi’s remarks had been misinterpreted.

“Neither the Italian government or ourselves have set some sort of deadline for withdrawal,” Mr. Blair told Parliament.

The Italian “position is exactly the same as ours, which is that there should be a buildup of Iraqi forces so that security is increasingly taken over by them.”

In Washington, President Bush said Mr. Berlusconi had assured him yesterday morning that any Italian withdrawal would be done in consultation with coalition allies.

“People want their troops home, but they don’t want their troops home if it affects the mission,” Mr. Bush said. “Most [coalition leaders] understand we need to complete the mission. And completing the mission means making sure the Iraqis can defend themselves.”

Mr. Berlusconi, interviewed by the state television network on Tuesday, had said in Italian: “We will begin to reduce our contingent [in Iraq] even before the end of the year, starting in September, in agreement with our allies.”

Asked when the withdrawal might be complete, he said it “will depend on the capacity of the Iraqi government to provide adequate security.”

The Italian prime minister also put his British counterpart on the spot by saying, “I spoke about this with Tony Blair, and it is our countries’ public opinion that expects this decision.”

Millions of viewers saw the statement on the popular current-affairs program “Porta A Porta” (“Door to Door”), prompting the London Times correspondent in Rome, Richard Owen, to write, “There is no doubt about what he said.

“There’s a lot of criticism here that his statement was made on live TV and not in front of parliament,” Mr. Owen reported, but, “I think it would be difficult for Berlusconi to argue that he was misinterpreted, since he spelled this out in clear terms to millions of people on a popular TV show.”

In London yesterday, Mr. Blair said nothing about holding any personal talks with the Italian prime minister.

But, he told Parliament, “We’ve always said we should leave as soon as possible once the Iraqi forces are in the position where they are capable of dealing with their own security.

“We should withdraw when the job is done, not before.”

Nevertheless, it was an unwelcome diversion for Mr. Blair, who has come under increasing domestic criticism over the role of British forces in Iraq and is facing likely parliamentary elections this spring.

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