- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

ROME - Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned yesterday after radical, anti-American senators demanding Italy withdraw troops from Afghanistan failed to support the center-left government, setting off an unexpected political crisis.

Mr. Prodi, a former Christian Democrat and former president of the European Commission, looked grim as he formally quit during an audience with President Giorgio Napolitano hours after the government was defeated by two votes on its Afghanistan policy in the upper house, where any chance for a majority would be razor thin.

The president, who asked Mr. Prodi to carry on in a caretaker capacity, may ask the prime minister to hold a full confidence vote in both houses of parliament, perhaps after a Cabinet reshuffle, political commentators said.

Government whips had prepared for the Senate vote carefully, but at least one “sharpshooter” from the Communist Refoundation party, on the hard left of the coalition, evidently abstained, political sources said. In all, 158 senators supported the government, 136 voted against and 24 abstained. Mr. Prodi needed 160 votes to muster a majority.

Before the vote, Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema pledged that Italian troops would remain in Afghanistan, but he said Italy would increase the civilian component in its mission.

Left-wing radicals in the Prodi government had demanded an Italian-sponsored peace conference on Afghanistan and insisted that Rome reject demands by Britain and the United States to change the rules of engagement governing the Italian troops, most of whom are based in Kabul.

Mr. Prodi was known to be concerned that the Italian contingent may be ordered into combat zones and take casualties when an expected Taliban offensive starts in the spring.

Ever since its inception last year, the government has come under pressure from its anti-American left wing on a constellation of foreign policy issues, and tension between Rome and Washington has ebbed and flowed.

Mr. D’Alema, a former communist, flew into a rage recently when the U.S. ambassador and other Rome-based envoys published an open letter to Italians in a Rome daily underlining the importance of Italian troops in Afghanistan.

The government also has been under pressure from magistrates in Milan who want Mr. Prodi to press Washington for the extradition of CIA agents purportedly involved in the “extreme rendition” of an Egyptian imam, Abu Omar, who was kidnapped on a Milan street.

The Prodi government presided over the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq, although that had been decided by the previous government led by the conservative Silvio Berlusconi.

Mr. Prodi and Mr. D’Alema both criticized U.S. air raids in Somalia and the Bush administration plan for a troop surge in Iraq.

The government also has been under pressure over Mr. Prodi’s approval of the extension of a U.S. military base at the northern city of Vicenza. Dozens of lawmakers took part in a rally against the extension at Vicenza on Saturday.

Supporters of Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party last night gathered outside the Palazzo Chigi, Mr. Prodi’s office, chanting, “Prodi go home.”

However, political commentators said Mr. Napolitano, himself a former communist, may want to give Mr. Prodi a second chance because his administration is only a few months old and followed a long period in office by Mr. Berlusconi.

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