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Italy to Pull Troops Out of Iraq by End of 2006

Defense minister Antonio Martino announced this week that Italy's mission in Iraq would be completed by the end of the year. He said a civilian force would gradually replace Italian troops to continue to assist with Iraq's reconstruction efforts.

Defense Minister Antonio Martino has announced Italy's military withdrawal from Iraq in 2006. This week he provided the first official timetable for the pull out of Italy's 2,600 troops saying around 300 soldiers would leave this month and 1,000 by June.

In an interview with Italy's all news SKY channel, Martino explained that Italy's Ancient Babylon military operation would end its mandate gradually over the year. He said the mission would be considered accomplished by the end of the year.

Martino says it is not an exit strategy; Italian troops are not fleeing or leaving their work half done. He says Italy has always considered its mission in Iraq as limited in time, and, with the objectives gradually fulfilled, the troops can be drawn down.

In Italy, some observers have suggested that the Italian government has announced the withdrawal at this time in an effort to win votes for the upcoming general elections in April. Italian public opinion has always been strongly against sending troops to Iraq.

But Martino rejected this and defended the center-right's government decision.

This was not a mission of war, he says, it was a peace mission like all the other peace missions. He saysItaly did not take part in the war, but merely intervened at the end of the war to help the country rebuild.

Martino says Italy's paramilitary force, the Carabinieri, trained 11,000 Iraqi police officers and Italian army soldiers trained nearly 2,000 soldiers.

Martino says Italy's presence becomes less important as Iraqis are able to maintain security on their own thanks to the training of Italian soldiers.

The success of this work, he added, was obvious during the elections held in the province of Dhi Qar, which is under Italy's responsibility.

Martino said Iraqis trained by Italy maintained security for the recent elections. There were no incidents, and turnout was higher than the national average.

The defense minister also said Italy cannot fail to do its part to combat international terrorism, which he said, is a concrete threat that exists in the world. Italy, like others, he added, must do everything possible to stop it from striking.

Minister Martino said Europe is now more united in its fight against terrorism. He added that differences between Europe and the United States on how to combat terrorism have narrowed. This is positive because, Martino added, the Euro-Atlantic partnership is of great importance for global security.