Berlusconi calls Bush over Iraq pullout plans

Staunch Bush ally Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, left, appears on RAI Television show "Porta a Porta" Tuesday. Corrado Giambalvo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Premier Silvio Berlusconi called President Bush on Wednesday and told him that Italy wants to begin a gradual pullout of its troops in Iraq as soon as possible, possibly in September, the premier's office said.

Berlusconi said the pullout would depend on security conditions in Iraq, and would be discussed with the Iraqi government and coalition allies. The phone call came a day after Berlusconi announced on a TV talk show that Italy would start cutting back its 3,000 troops in Iraq in September if security conditions in Iraq permitted.

"The premier has confirmed that the possibility will depend on the Iraqi government's increasing ability to take care of the country's security and public order, and in full agreement with the Iraqi government and allied governments," Berlusconi's office said.

The decision came as the Italian leader confirmed he is running to keep the premiership in general elections in spring 2006.

The announcement by the conservative leader was the most high-profile crack in what the U.S. administration has boasted in the past was a solid alliance. The Netherlands is ending its mission this month, and Poland plans to withdraw some troops in July.

President Bush said Wednesday he understands the desire of U.S. coalition partners to withdraw troops from Iraq, but he declined to set a timetable for bringing American forces home.

"Our troops will come home when Iraqis are capable of defending themselves," Bush told a news conference.

Italy's casualties
Hours before Berlusconi announced the pullout on Tuesday, 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. The nation lost 19 Italians, most of them military members, in the November 2003 suicide truck bombing of Italian paramilitary police barracks in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq.

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. U.S. soldiers patrolling near the airport mistakenly fired on the car in which the two were traveling.

The premier said he had spoken about the situation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, another of Bush’s closest allies in Iraq.

As the situation stands now, the reduction in the number of Italian forces will start “even before the year’s end, in agreement with our allies,” the Italian added.

Italy’s defense minister had previously said coalition troops in Iraq could be cut gradually after Iraq’s elections in January if Iraq could provide its own security, but he didn’t specify a timetable.

Italian leaders have demanded U.S. authorities conduct a transparent investigation of the shooting death of military intelligence agent Nicola Calipari on March 4 near Baghdad airport.

“Bush knows he can’t disappoint his faithful ally” about the probe, said Berlusconi, who previously tried to get political mileage out of his friendship with the American leader.