Berlusconi announces September pullout for Italian forces in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, will begin withdrawing Italian troops from Iraq in September.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, will begin withdrawing Italian troops from Iraq in September.

On Porta a Porta, a television talk show on which he often makes important announcements, he said: "As early as September we will begin a progressive reduction of the number of our soldiers in Iraq." The pace of the withdrawal will depend, he said, "on the capability of the Iraqi government to give itself structures for acceptable security. I've spoken about it with Tony Blair, and it's the public opinion of our countries that expects this decision."

Between 70 and 80 per cent of Italians are hostile to Italy's involvement in Iraq, but until now Mr Berlusconi has resisted pressure to say when the Italian troops, described as peacekeepers, would leave. In the past he has said they would stay until the government of Iraq asked them to go.

Italy has about 2,700 soldiers and carabinieri in the country, based in Nasiriyah, a relatively peaceful town in the south. Twenty-eight have lost their lives, 19 as a result of a massive suicide bomb which struck their barracks nearly two years ago. One more died yesterday, accidentally shooting himself in the head during target practice.

Military experts warned that as a consequence of the Italian withdrawal, it was likely that more British troops would be sent to Iraq to fill the gap. Charles Heyman, senior defence analyst for Jane's Information Group, said: "There's no doubt whatsoever that the embryonic Iraqi security forces are really not capable of controlling the area ­ they need coalition forces to support them. It's going to leave a big hole, there's no doubt about that. We're probably going to be asked to help to fill the gap."

Mr Berlusconi, who faces important regional elections in less than a month, has been under pressure to do something to shore up the centre-right's crumbling position in the opinion polls. Economic stagnation and declining standards of living have hit the standing of his party and its allies.

But the killing of Nicola Calipari, a secret service agent, by American troops on 4 March, minutes after he liberated Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist who had been held hostage for a month, revived hostility to Italian involvement in the war. Mr Berlusconi's popularity took a nosedive in opinion polls immediately after the killing.

James Walston, professor of political science at the American University in Rome, said: "Berlusconi has been saying for quite a long time that he wanted Italian troops to leave fairly soon. Presumably the killing of Nicola Calipari has concentrated minds. Berlusconi cannot and will not cut and run, but he will contrive to leave Iraq as quickly as is elegant. And he doesn't want the expense of another hostage rescue operation weighing on taxpayers' minds when they go to vote.

"The centre-right are likely to lose the upcoming election, but this will reduce their decline in the opinion polls. Berlusconi's announcement is a rearguard action."

Gabriele Polo, editor of Il Manifesto, the newspaper on which Giuliana Sgrena works, said: "Like all members of the coalition in Iraq, Berlusconi has had difficulties with popular opinion against the war. This decision is definitely related to the upcoming election. What I fear is that the US and Italy have done a deal. America has agreed to Italy's withdrawal, and Italy has agreed that the inquiry into the killing of Calipari will not shed any light on the incident. It will leave it in the dark. We will not find out what really happened."

Mr Berlusconi's announcement came on the day the lower house of the Italian parliament voted to extend the Italian mission in Iraq for six months, at a cost of ¤267.8m [£186.3m].

The Bulgarian President, Georgi Parvanov, meanwhile said yesterday that Bulgaria should pull its 450 troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. The announcement came a week after a Bulgarian soldier was killed by American friendly fire.

REMAINING FORCES

US: 150,000

Britain: 8,850

South Korea: 3,600

Australia: 900 (up to 1,350 by April)

Romania: 800 (to 900)

Japan: 600

Denmark: 500

Bulgaria: 380

El Salvador: 380

Georgia: 300 (to rise to 800)

Mongolia: 180

Azerbaijan: 150

Latvia: 120

Lithuania: 100

Slovakia: 100

Czech Rep: 90

Albania: 70

Estonia: 50

Tonga: 40

Kazakhstan: 30

Macedonia: 30

Moldova: 25

On their way out:

Italy: 3,000

Netherlands: 1,500

Ukraine: 1,650

Poland: 1,700 (will reduce by half)

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