- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Italy will keep its 3,000 troops in Iraq for as long as they are needed, Italy’s ambassador to Washington said yesterday after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared in Tunisia that planning would begin in January for Italian troops to withdraw by the end of 2006.

“We will stay as long as is necessary for our common mission,” said Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta, while insisting there was no contradiction between that and the prime minister’s statement.

“We have a strategy of success,” he told reporters and editors at The Washington Times. “Our schedule is not time-related, but success-related. We will not pull out one minute earlier.”

Mr. Castellaneta said Iraq has had several successful elections and, on Dec. 15, is expected to take another step on the road to full democracy. If all goes according to plan, he said, that progress will make it possible for Italy to withdraw its troops next year.

Mr. Berlusconi said in Tunisia that Italy’s withdrawal would be done “in agreement with the other allies, and it will be done in agreement with the Iraqi government.”

But Mr. Castellaneta would not say whether that was a topic of discussion during talks Tuesday between Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said earlier this month that British troops could be withdrawn as early as the end of 2006, as Iraqi troops will be prepared by then to take over in the south.

When asked about European immigration issues, Mr. Castellaneta said that Italy was not vulnerable to the sort of riots that shook France beginning Oct. 27.

“We do not have the same social situations, traditions or numbers. The foreign presence in Italy is about 4 million, less than 5 percent,” he said. “We need legal immigrants because the birthrate in Italy is very low. We appreciate and praise the foreign presence, as long as it is legal.”

He said that for decades Italy has been an “immigrant-exporting” nation, and — despite anti-immigration sentiment in some minority political parties — is mostly sympathetic to immigrants.

“We try to offer work and shelter and food, because we were once immigrants ourselves,” he said. “Under a legal framework, we are ready to open our borders. Many industries in Italy need foreign immigrants.”

He said Italy is ready to welcome the world to the Winter Olympic Games in Turin this February, but cautioned that Italian drug laws are far more strict than the Olympic anti-doping penalties, creating the possibility that Olympic athletes found guilty of substance abuse could be jailed.

“Our drug laws are very strict. If the prosecutor in Turin decides to open an inquiry, no one will stop him,” he said.


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