Italy's defense minister says his country will withdraw 1,000 troops from Iraq by June and the rest of the force by the end of the year.

Antonio Martino told a parliamentary committee Italy will conduct a phased withdrawal of the 2,600 troops it has in southern Iraq, turning over responsibilities to Iraqi forces. He said Italy's presence in the area will continue, but it will be largely civilian in nature.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a strong U.S. ally, sent 3,000 peacekeepers to Iraq following the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein. But attacks on Italian troops and civilians sparked increasing calls in Italy for their withdrawal.

Italian authorities began the process late last year as Italy prepared for this April's parliamentary elections.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.