BOWING to popular pressure, the Italian Government said last night that it would
start pulling its more than 3,000 troops out of Iraq in September.
The surprise announcement by Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, came less
than two weeks after US troops shot dead Nicola Calipari, Italy’s top intelligence
officer in Iraq, as he escorted a freed Italian hostage to safety.
Italy has 3,200 troops and Carabinieri paramilitary police in al-Nasiriyah,
a former insurgent stronghold in the British-controlled southern sector of Iraq.
Their withdrawal is bound to increase pressure on British troops to fill the
Signor Berlusconi’s announcement, which comes just over two weeks before
key regional elections in Italy, is further proof that the alliance of 30 nations
that once boasted 25,000 troops serving alongside US forces in Iraq is unravelling.
Key allies, including the Netherlands, Ukraine and Poland, are ordering their
forces to return home.
Britain has already had to move 650 troops from the Basra area to take over
territory previously controlled by departing Dutch troops.
Signor Berlusconi said that he had discussed the withdrawal with Tony Blair.
“We need to construct a precise exit strategy,” he said. “It
is public opinion in our countries which expects this decision.”
The Italians, who have a brigade deployed in and around the Shia city of al-Nasiriyah,
had been regarded as one of the most committed coalition partners. Until now
Signor Berlusconi has steadfastly backed President Bush’s Iraq policy
in the teeth of powerful opposition from his electorate.However, anti-war sentiment
in Italy was galvanised this month by the death of Signor Calipari at the hands
of US troops in a “friendly fire” incident while he was taking an
Italian woman hostage to safety.
The death yesterday of an Italian paratrooper in Iraq, shot in the head by
accident during target practice, also helped to fuel opposition to the war.
“We will begin to reduce our contingent in Iraq before the end of the
year, in agreement with our allies,” Signor Berlusconi said. “The
first reduction will start in September”. The announcement coincided with
a state visit to Britain by President Ciampi, accompanied by Gianfranco Fini,
the Foreign Minister. Last week Signor Fini told Parliament that Italy wanted
clear answers from the US over the death of Signor Calipari, which led to an
outpouring of national grief.
British and American sources tried to play down the impact of the Italian retreat.
The White House brushed aside suggestions that the withdrawal was a setback
for Washington, and was at pains to deny that the decision was linked to the
shooting of Signor Calipari.