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Prodi Defends Italy's Involvement in Afghanistan

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi defended his government's foreign policy on Tuesday, including its troop commitment in Afghanistan. In a wide-ranging speech to the upper house of parliament, Prodi tried to convince senators of the need for his government to survive. Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome

Less than a week after Prime Minister Prodi submitted his resignation, he addressed the upper house of parliament, stressing the need for the parties of his center-left coalition to respect the government's common action.

The prime minister resigned last Wednesday after suffering an embarrassing defeat over foreign policy in the Senate, which included the government's plan to keep Italian troops in Afghanistan. He was asked to remain in office and form a new government.

In his Tuesday evening address, Mr. Prodi defended Italy's foreign policy and Rome's troop commitment in Afghanistan, where 1,800 Italian troops are deployed.

"The goal of Italy's presence in Afghanistan," he said, "is to consolidate the young democratic institutions in the country. Our soldiers in Afghanistan, like on all our missions, he added, bring a culture of dialogue and help, not of clashes."

Mr. Prodi also said Italy is committed to maintain a channel of dialogue open with Iran.

"It is true," he said, "that the choices made by Tehran have created a very difficult situation with the international community, but we must do everything that is possible to avoid this from turning into a military confrontation."

On the Middle East, Mr. Prodi said the Italian government would continue to make every effort to ensure that Israel and the Palestinians will live as two people in two states, capable of coexisting in peace and security side by side.

The prime minister also stressed that his government has sought to raise its profile in Europe while maintaining good relations with Washington.

On the domestic front, Mr. Prodi pledged a reform of the electoral system, which has been blamed for contributing to political instability by giving too much influence to small parties. He also promised to help families and increase job security.

A vote of confidence in the government led by Mr. Prodi will be held in the senate late Wednesday.

Center-left party leaders have said they are confident they will win this time after all coalition parties renewed their commitment to the government. All parties have signed a 12-point plan that the prime minister said would be "non-negotiable" and would serve as the government's platform.

If Mr. Prodi wins the Senate vote, he will submit his government to a vote in the lower house, where he has comfortable majority.

If he loses the confidence vote, the government will have to resign, sparking a political crisis that might lead to the formation of a broad-coalition government or to early elections.