Italy, one of Washington’s most stalwart allies in Iraq, announced it could begin pulling its troops out in September, an acknowledgment by Premier Silvio Berlusconi that Italian public opinion is heavily against the war.
Word from one of President Bush’s closest allies that some of Italy’s 3,300 troops would start leaving Iraq within year’s end came as the Italian leader confirmed he is running to keep the premiership in general elections in spring 2006.
"We will begin to withdraw our contingent in Iraq before the end of the year," the newspaper La Repubblica quoted him as saying."The first reduction will begin by September."
Italy's center-left opposition, which was strongly opposed to war in Iraq, on Wednesday welcomed Berlusconi's announcement.
"About time, better late than never," said opposition leader Romano Prodi, a former premier and former EU commission president who is expected to be Berlusconi's opponent in political elections next year.
"It's the logical consequence of a wrong decision," Prodi was quoted as saying in daily La Repubblica on Wednesday. "This long-awaited news confirms our stance."
Hours earlier, Italy suffered its latest casualty in Iraq, the 21st military member killed since it sent in some 3,000 troops after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Italy is also still grappling with the shock and outrage over the killing of an Italian intelligence agent earlier this month as he was accompanying a just-freed Italian hostage to Baghdad airport.
This is the first time Berlusconi has given a timetable for troop withdrawal and although Scott McClellan says the death of Nicola Calipari has nothing to do with it I can't help but believe it does. The incident has no doubt heightened the Italian outcry against the war and Mr. Berlusconi will be seeking re-election. Like Bush he enjoys being President.