- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

ROME — Italy will begin withdrawing its 3,300 troops from Iraq in September, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced yesterday, claiming Rome’s pullout was discussed beforehand with British counterpart Tony Blair.

Mr. Berlusconi’s decision comes amid national outrage over the shooting death by American troops of the Italian agent who had rescued a kidnapped Italian journalist.

“As early as September, we will start a progressive reduction of the number of our soldiers in Iraq,” the Italian prime minister said in an interview with a popular television talk show.

Citing his discussion of the decision with Mr. Blair, the Italian leader hinted the British prime minister might be planning a similar move.

Britain recently increased its troop commitment to Iraq but the British defense ministry has found it increasingly difficult to meet its armed forces’ peacekeeping commitments to work in different parts of the world.

“I spoke about this with Tony Blair and it is our countries’ public opinion that expects this decision,” Mr. Berlusconi said.

The announcement comes as a number of U.S. allies are pulling out of Iraq.

Bulgaria said yesterday it would probably withdraw its 450 troops from Iraq by the end of this year, a decision that follows the death of a Bulgarian soldier who was accidentally killed by U.S. forces.

The Dutch government, defying pressure from Washington, has announced it will pull its troops from Iraq by mid-April, while Poland and Ukraine plan to withdraw their forces this year.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday, “We certainly appreciate the contributions of the Italians. They have served and sacrificed alongside Iraqis and alongside other coalition forces.”

Mr. Berlusconi made his announcement a short time after Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, voted 246-180 with eight abstentions, to extend the deployment of the 3,300 troops stationed in Iraq’s Nasiriyah area.

The prime minister outraged opposition leaders by almost casually announcing the decision while being interviewed for Italy’s best-known television talk show, “Door to Door,” instead of telling parliament first.

Public outrage at the United States exploded when a top Italian intelligence officer, Nicola Calipari, was fatally shot by U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital as he traveled by car to Baghdad airport with an Italian journalist whose freedom he had negotiated from kidnappers.

Since the tragic conclusion that accompanied the release of Giuliana Sgrena, and national mourning for the agent who died saving her, Mr. Berlusconi’s advisers have been looking for ways of assuaging public discontent, with regional elections scheduled for next month.

Opposition Democratic Party leader Piero Fassino accused the prime minister of “showing a total lack of respect to parliament and representative institutions” by making the announcement in an off-hand manner during prime-time television, presumably to woo voters in the upcoming polls.

Mr. Berlusconi said he did not want to comment on the investigation of the shooting in Iraq, other than to say “there is a climate of fear among the American troops in Iraq.”

Italian military sources have said they informed their U.S. counterparts 20 minutes before Mr. Calipari was shot that they had secured the hostage’s release and were traveling with her on the hazardous airport road.

“I am convinced that the American president will deliver on what he promised me on the telephone when he expressed his pain over the incident. He told me ‘we will intervene, we will get to the bottom of what happened and we will do so rapidly,’ ” Mr. Berlusconi said.

“And President Bush knows that he cannot delude a loyal ally, as he considers us,” Mr. Berlusconi said.

The first anniversary of the March 11, 2004, terrorist attack in Madrid that led Spain to withdraw its troops last year received wide coverage in Italian media amid fears that Italy might be targeted similarly by terrorists for its membership in the U.S.-led coalition.

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