updated 1/19/2006 9:31:35 AM ET 2006-01-19T14:31:35

Italy will conclude its mission in Iraq by the end of the year, the defense minister said Thursday.

Defense Minister Antonio Martino told a parliamentary committee that the operation "will be considered concluded at the end of the year, having definitively completed its mission."

The comments represented the first time Italy officially gave a timeline for the end of its mission.

Italy has 2,600 troops based in the south of Iraq. The country's mission "will gradually faze out in the course of the year, and another type of mission, substantially a civilian one" will replace the troops, Martino said.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a strong U.S. ally, defied strong domestic opposition and sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq to help rebuild the country after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

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