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Talabani Asks Italy to Keep Troops in Iraq

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Tuesday that his country should be ready to start taking over security from international forces by the end of 2006. Speaking after talks with Italian officials he said that an early pullout of Iraqi troops would have disastrous consequences for his country.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said a withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq should be gradual and coordinated with the Iraqi government. He said his country's troops should be able to gradually replace coalition forces towards the end of next year.

Mr. Talabani's words followed a meeting in Rome with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini. The Iraqi leader's week-long official visit ends November 12th and also includes a meeting with Pope Benedict at the Vatican on Thursday.

The Iraqi president said an immediate pullout of foreign troops could end up encouraging international terrorists who oppose democracy in the Middle East. He added that it would leave the job of rebuilding Iraq undone.

Prime Minister Berlusconi and his government have been under intense pressure to withdraw around three thousand Italian troops based in Nassiryah. The center-left has been calling for a quick troop pull-out and the issue is likely to dominate the political debate in Italy as the country heads to general elections next spring.

The leader of the center-left, Romano Prodi, also met with the Iraqi president Tuesday evening and outlined his coalition's position if he wins the election.

He said a schedule for the pullout of troops would be agreed to with the Iraqis. He also confirmed that Italy's commitment to the country's reconstruction will remain strong in the future.

Italy did not take part in the war to oust Saddam Hussein, but the center-right government defied domestic opposition to the war and decided to send troops to the region later to help in reconstruction efforts. Mr. Berlusconi said Italy could not avoid taking part in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq.

Mr. Berlusconi said Italy would continue to help Iraq become a proper democracy. So far, he added, Italy has completed the training of nine thousand Iraqi policemen and is also training doctors and civil servants.

The Italian Prime minister said he asked Mr. Talabani whether he believed the Iraqi dictatorship could have been put to an end without war. He said the Iraqi president said there was no other way but war to topple Saddam Hussein and stop the annihilation of the Iraqi people.