Italy sets date to pull troops out of Iraq

Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, on Friday confirmed that he will start pulling his country’s troops out of Iraq within two months.

Speaking at the Group of Eight Gleneagles summit, Berlusconi said the withdrawal of the first of Italy’s 3 000 troops will start in September.

“We will begin withdrawing 300 men in September,” he said, adding that the decision will depend on the security situation on the ground.

He said he discussed the plan with allies and with the Iraqi government, but added: “We will have to give confirmation” on the decision.

Berlusconi sought to portray the move as a continuation of existing policy, noting that he had already announced plans to start withdrawing troops. In fact, Italy’s stance has been unclear since March when Berlusconi gave conflicting signals about his plan.

His Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gianfranco Fini, had most recently indicated that there would be no movement until early 2006.

Friday’s announcement is bound to prompt criticism that Berlusconi is aiming to deter Islamist terrorists from striking at Italy next.

The announcement came amid growing concern in Italy that his government’s staunch backing for the policies of the Bush administration has put Rome or Milan next in line for an al-Qaeda attack.

Berlusconi warned on Thursday that Italians are “exposed” to terrorist attacks, and on Friday one of his ministers, Roberto Calderoli, said: “It is clear that, after New York, Madrid and London, Italy represents the terrorists’ most likely short-term objective.”

Berlusconi himself said on Friday that his country is directly in the firing line.

“There is a war on against the West by people who want to show our civilisation is evil,” he said. “Even intelligence from other countries shows the three Bs—Bush, Berlusconi and Blair—are considered the most exposed to this type of risk.”

Calderoli added: “The moment has come to start thinking of our own interests.”

His remark prompted scornful disavowals from several of Berlusconi’s other supporters, one of whom said a withdrawal from Iraq would mean “fleeing in the face of terror”.

Two different groups claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda have warned of attacks on Italy within the past 24 hours.

One group, calling itself the Organisation of al Qaeda-Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula, described Rome as “the capital of infidels” on Friday.
Berlusconi’s right-wing government, which faces a general election in less than a year, is vulnerable on Iraq.

Despite the fact that public opinion was overwhelmingly against the invasion, Italy today is the third-biggest contributor of troops to the United States-led coalition, after the US and Britain. Its forces did not help invade Iraq, but were sent in afterwards as part of what Berlusconi and his ministers have always insisted is a peace mission.

Doubts over the government’s policies surged into the open in March when an Italian intelligence officer was shot dead by US troops while on a hostage rescue mission.

Shortly afterwards, Berlusconi spoke for the first time of a troop withdrawal in the autumn.

Speaking on television, he said: “A progressive reduction of the presence of our soldiers will start from September.”

However, following a telephone call from US President George Bush, Berlusconi changed his stance, saying troop withdrawal was merely “a hope”.

Italy’s normally cordial relations with the US were again strained last month after an Italian judge ordered the arrest of 13 American agents accused of seizing a terrorist suspect on the streets of Milan and flying him out of the country.

The government has said it was not warned of the operation.

The Italian authorities were quick to react to Thursday’s bombings in London.

Extra plainclothes police were deployed to guard public transport, security was tightened at airports and more than 13 000 “sensitive sites” were under special guard.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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