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Italy sets date to start Iraq withdrawal

/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq — already thin as countries have pulled their troops out of the troubled nation — suffered another blow when Italy detailed its withdrawal of the first 300 of its more than 3,000 troops from Iraq for in September, while Ukraine announced that his country will leave Iraq by the end of the year and Bulgaria said it would begin cutting troop levels in the summer.

Meanwhile, violence continued as a suicide car bomber blew himself up near Iraqi security officials guarding a shrine filled with Shiite pilgrims marking a major religious holiday. The blast killed two soldiers and three bystanders — including a small child — and confirmed fears the country’s Sunni-led insurgency would target the festival.

“There is already a plan for the withdrawal of 300 of our soldiers, without weakening our presence (in Iraq), at the end of September,” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in an interview on state television RAI on Thursday.

Winding downBerlusconi, a strong ally of the United States, first announced earlier this month that he planned to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in September, setting off alarm bells in London and Washington. But he later appeared to backtrack, saying there was no fixed date for any pullout.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said his country will leave Iraq by the end of the year. Ukraine had already decided to begin pulling out its 1,650 troops, the fourth-largest non-U.S. contingent in Iraq. But the timing of the complete withdrawal had remained unclear.

Also Thursday, Bulgaria said it planned to cut the number of its troops in Iraq in July. But it said it would extend the smaller mission until the end of the year.

Countries around the world have pulled out of Iraq, pressured by growing criticism of the mission at home and threats from militant groups — including kidnappings and beheadings.

In another blow to the American-led mission, a saying the country’s spy agencies were “dead wrong” in most of their judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war.

In Romania, which still has 800 soldiers in Iraq, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu refused to say Thursday whether he would consider withdrawing his soldiers after kidnappers released a video showing three kidnapped Romanian journalists and a fourth unidentified person — possibly an American.

The video, aired Wednesday by Al-Jazeera satellite television, showed three kidnapped Romanian journalists and a fourth unidentified person — possibly an American — with guns pointed at them.

Tariceanu said no demands had yet been made for the journalists.

Blast targets religious pilgrimsViolence continued in the war-torn nation, with the suicide bombing in Tuz Khormato, 55 miles south of Kirkuk. The blast occurred near an Iraqi Army checkpoint set up to guard a Shiite shrine where pilgrims were celebrating Thursday’s religious festival. Five people were killed and 16 others were injured, police and hospital officials said.

Across the country Thursday, Shiite Muslims observed a religious holiday marking the end of a 40-day mourning period for one of Shiites’ most important saints, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussein, who was killed in a seventh century battle.

The biggest gathering is in the southern city of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims visited two holy shrines and marched and beat their chests with their fists in a sign of mourning. Police, on the alert for attacks, closed the streets to vehicle traffic, set up checkpoints and frisked people for weapons.  No major incidents were reported.

But gunmen did open fire late Wednesday on a truck carrying faithful near Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad. One person was killed. Earlier that same day, gunmen fired on pilgrims in southern Iraq, killing one person.

On Monday, two separate attacks on pilgrims left four dead, including two police officers guarding the faithful.

State of emergency extendedOngoing violence led interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to extend a state of emergency until the end of April. First announced nearly five months ago, the order affects all of Iraq except Kurdish-run areas in the north.

The emergency decree includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government extra powers to make arrests without warrants and launch police and military operations when it deems necessary.

The news came as a suicide bomber rammed his car into a U.S.  military humvee in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing three people and injuring more than a dozen others, hospital officials said. There were no U.S. casualties, the U.S. military said.

Also in Samarra, gunmen briefly attacked a police station with rocket propelled grenades and gunfire, police official Qasim Muhamed said. No casualties were reported.

And a roadside bomb injured six policemen on patrol and one bystander in the southern city of Basra, police official Lt. Col. Karim Al-Zubaidi said.

American fatalitiesThe U.S. military on Thursday released details on the deaths of three U.S. soldiers killed in separate clashes. The announcements brought the number of U.S. soldiers who died in March to 33 — the lowest monthly death toll since 20 American soldiers were killed in February 2004.

One soldier was killed in action Thursday near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad. No other details were released.

A second soldier died from injuries he sustained during a clash Wednesday in northern Mosul. The soldier was among six U.S.  military personnel who were injured when they tried to conduct a routine check of a taxi, Lt. Col. Andre Lance said. The taxi’s passengers opened fire on the soldiers, and they shot back, killing the assailants and causing the taxi to explode. Officials believe the vehicle was carrying explosives.

A third soldier was killed Wednesday when his patrol came under fire in Baghdad, the military said in a statement. The gunmen disappeared into a nearby crowd, but five suspects were later detained.

The names of the soldier were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

Lawmakers in negotiationIn the capital, lawmakers were working to agree on a Sunni Arab lawmaker to serve as speaker of the National Assembly, part of a plan to incorporate into the new government Sunnis once dominant under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Sunni Arabs hold a disproportionately small number of seats in parliament because many boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls. Lawmakers want to bring influential Sunni leaders into the government, hoping that might tame the insurgency believed to be led by Sunnis.

On Wednesday, a group of Sunni leaders nominated lawmaker Meshaan al-Jubouri as their candidate, although it wasn’t clear if he had the backing of the entire Sunni community.

Lawmakers were scheduled to hold a formal session Sunday to resolve the issue.