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Italian PM Announces Phased Withdrawal from Iraq

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Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Italian troops will start to be withdrawn from Iraq in September. He said it will be a gradual pullout based on the Iraqi government's ability to handle its own security.

Prime Minister Berlusconi said Italy would start to reduce its 3,000 strong contingent in Iraq before the end of the year. He added that the pullout would begin in September and would be gradual.

Mr. Berlusconi said the number of soldiers withdrawn would depend on the Iraqi government's ability to handle its own security.

The prime minister's announcement came during a political talk show. He also said the decision had been discussed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Italian government has been one of the strongest supporters of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. It has the fourth largest contingent based in the country's south.

But Mr. Berlusconi's center-right government has been under mounting pressure to withdraw soldiers following the killing of an Italian intelligence officer in Baghdad earlier this month.

Intelligence officer Nicola Calipari had just secured the release of an Italian journalist and was on his way to Baghdad airport when U.S. troops mistakenly opened fire on the car.

U.S. President George Bush promised Italy a full investigation into the incident, the result of which is expected in the next few weeks.

Mr. Berlusconi's announcement Tuesday of the pullout came on the same day that the Italian contingent suffered its 21st casualty in Iraq. A soldier accidentally shot himself in the head during target practice.

Opposition member Oliviero Diliberto asked just how many more deaths would Italy have to receive and cry over before a final withdrawal from Iraq would take place.  

News of the soldier's death reached parliament just as it was voting an extension of financing for troops in Iraq. There was a minute of silence in the lower house. Then the mission obtained approval for another six months.

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