· Invasion was grave error, says new prime minister
· 2,600 troops to pull out in consultation with allies
Britain and the US were last night facing almost total isolation in
Iraq after Italy's new prime minister, Romano Prodi, made it clear that he intended
to pull out the third-biggest contingent in the military coalition at the earliest
possible opportunity. Under Silvio Berlusconi, Italy was among the most enthusiastic
supporters of the Bush-Blair line. But in his first policy speech since being
sworn in on Wednesday, Mr Prodi was excoriating in his criticism of Anglo-American
Unveiling his government's programme to the upper house of the Rome parliament,
he caused uproar when he declared that the invasion of Iraq had been a "grave
mistake" and branded the allied military presence an "occupation".
With some 2,600 troops on the ground, based at Nassiriya in the south, Italy's
contingent in Iraq is the biggest after those of the US and Britain.
Rightwing senators whistled and jeered as Mr Prodi said: "We consider
the war and the occupation of the country a grave mistake. It has not resolved
- on the contrary, it has complicated - the security problem. In Iraq, terrorism
has found a new base and new pretexts for terror attacks both inside and outside
the country." The war, had "opened up a Pandora's box and risks causing
a regional conflagration".
The departure of Italian troops from Iraq would further weaken a coalition
that has been hostage to anti-war sentiment in Europe as well as financial constraints.
Mr Berlusconi is only the most recent US ally in Iraq to be rejected by voters
at home, continuing a tradition that began with the defeat of Spain's José
María Aznar in 2004.
Ukraine withdrew all of its troops from Iraq at the end of last year, and Poland,
which was once one of the largest military contributors, has also cut its contingent.
Several other smaller forces have also been withdrawn.
Mr Prodi, a former EU commission president, said he intended to preserve Italy's
good relations with Washington, and carefully avoided fixing a date for the
pull-out. Holding to the letter of his centre-left alliance's electoral programme,
he said the troops would come home "within a technically necessary timeframe"
and in consultation with Rome's allies.
That caution was appreciated in Washington, where there was no direct response
to his speech. A state department spokesman, Edgar Vasquez, said: "Mr Prodi
has been clear that the decision on Italian troop deployments in Iraq will be
taken in consultation with the Iraqi leadership and coalition partners. This
is a responsible way to assist Iraqi people in their quest for security and
The previous, conservative, government had promised to withdraw by the end
of 2006. But the tone of Mr Prodi's address was at odds with Mr Berlusconi's
fervent Atlanticism and pointed to a speedy departure. Some of the more leftwing
parties in his broad alliance, which made impressive gains in last month's election,
are pressing for Italy's troops to be back by the summer.
Mr Prodi's use of the term "occupation" marked a radical departure
from earlier official rhetoric. Faced with overwhelming public rejection of
the US-led invasion, Mr Berlusconi did not contribute troops to the war effort
but jumped at the chance to send a contingent after the fighting. It was defined
as a peacekeeping force, but leftwing opponents repeatedly argued that Italy's
soldiers and paramilitary Carabinieri were part of an occupying army.
Mr Prodi's choice of words in his speech to the senate yesterday was the latest
of several indications that the balance of gravity in his administration lies
well to the left of its leader.
Italy's misgivings over its presence in Iraq are by no means confined to the
left. Last year, they surged into the open after US troops shot dead an Italian
intelligence officer, Nicola Calipari, as he escorted a freed civilian hostage
to Baghdad airport.
Altogether, Italy's involvement in Iraq has cost the lives of 36 people - 29
soldiers and police, and seven civilians. The latest victims, an army officer
and two Carabinieri, died in a bomb attack last month.