Italy to pull troops from Iraq in Sept.
ROME - Italy will start to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq this September, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday, adding to the list of U.S. allies looking to cut their troop levels.
In a television interview, Berlusconi said he was also in discussions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about a total exit strategy from Iraq, adding the people of both countries wanted their troops to return home.
When asked when the total withdrawal of troops would take place, Berlusconi was cautious, saying: "It will depend on the capacity of the Iraqi government to provide adequate security."
One of the staunchest supporters of U.S. foreign policy, Berlusconi's government has dispatched some 3,000 troops to Iraq despite strong opposition at home.
It is the fourth largest foreign contingent there after U.S., British and South Korean forces.
But pressure on Italy's mission in Iraq has increased since intelligence agent Nicola Calipari was killed earlier this month by U.S. soldiers shortly after rescuing an Italian hostage.
The friendly-fire incident has strained relations with the United States and US President Bush has promised Italy a fast and thorough investigation.
"(Bush) knows that he can't let down a loyal ally," Berlusconi told RAI, adding the killing was a "serious mistake."
The White House said Berlusconi's move was not linked to Calipari's death and said he was echoing comments he had made last week to the Italian Senate.
Asked whether Italy's decision was tied to the shooting, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he had not heard Italian officials saying that. "I'm not sure I'd make a connection there," he said.
"If you look at what he (Berlusconi) said last week and what he said again today, this will be based on the ability and capability of Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government to be able to assume more responsibility and that he will work in agreement with allies in the region before taking those steps," McClellan said and applauded the contribution of the Italians.
Earlier on Tuesday, Bulgaria's president said his country should withdraw its 450 troops from Iraq by the end of this year after a Bulgarian soldier was accidentally killed by U.S. forces. A final decision is expected by the end of the month.
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.
Just hours before Berlusconi announced Italy's partial withdrawal, an Italian solider died in Iraq during a target-shooting exercise. Some 21 Italian soldiers and five civilians have died in Iraq since the 2003 deployment.
Center-left opposition parties have used Iraq as a rallying cry against
Berlusconi's government. But the coalition parties overcame objections and voted
in parliament on Tuesday to extend funding for the mission to Iraq for another