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Bush, Berlusconi Discuss Italian Troop Withdrawal from Iraq

President Bush says Italy's decision to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq is not a blow to the international coalition supporting the formation of a new government in Baghdad. Italy is the latest member of that coalition to announce plans to start bringing soldiers home.

President Bush says he understands why coalition partners are anxious to leave Iraq, but he is encouraging allies to stay the course until the country can better defend itself.

"People want their troops home. But they don't want their troops home if it affects the mission. We've made a lot of progress," the president said.

President Bush telephoned Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi Wednesday, a day after the prime minister announced plans to start withdrawing 3,000 Italian troops from Iraq in September if security forces there can take more charge of their own security.

The prime minister has been one of the president's biggest European allies in Iraq but is under increasing pressure at home following the shooting of an Italian intelligence officer by U.S. troops.

President Bush says Prime Minister Berlusconi assured him that the decision to begin planning an exit strategy does not change Italy's commitment to Iraq's future.

"He said first of all he wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy, that in fact any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves," Mr. Bush said.

Asked if Italy's decision means the coalition is crumbling, President Bush said that, on the contrary, he believes coalition members are pleased and heartened by the Iraqi vote as they see progress being made toward a new government.

Mr. Bush says he shares what he calls that sense of enthusiasm about what is taking place in Iraq, calling the seating of a new assembly in Baghdad a bright moment in the country's history.

The president says Iraq's new army is making progress on officer training and establishing chains of command from civilian to military commanders.

Fourteen nations have withdrawn from the coalition since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago. Italy is the fourth largest contributor of troops behind the United States, Britain, and South Korea.

Dutch troops cede control to British forces in a formal ceremony, as Dutch mission in Iraq came to an end March 7, 2005
One-hundred-and-sixty Dutch troops returned home this week as part of a phased withdrawal. Ukraine and Poland are also gradually reducing their troop levels in Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that there is no deadline for British or Italian troops to leave Iraq before the new government there can defend itself.

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