Italian troops set to leave Iraq

ROME-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Washington’s most ardent supporters in Iraq, signaled his intention Tuesday to withdraw Italian troops from the country beginning in September. That would make Italy the latest country to reduce or eliminate its military contingent in the U.S.-led force.

With the newly elected National Assembly set to meet for the first time Wednesday, representatives from Shiite Muslim and Kurdish parties continued talks aimed at reaching an agreement on broad policy objectives for a new government, including how to deal with the insurgency. Sources on both sides of the negotiations said agreement was close.

A final accord on policy goals would smooth the way for the formation of a coalition government with Ibrahim Jafari, the interim vice president who heads Shiite Dawa party, serving as prime minister. Jalal Talabani, a key Kurdish leader, would fill the ceremonial post of president, but appointment of the government could be days or weeks away, Iraqis involved in the talks said.

Italy, with about 3,000 soldiers in the country, is the fourth-largest contributor of foreign military forces in Iraq after the United States, Britain and South Korea. Following the March 4 killing of an Italian intelligence agent by U.S. troops near the Baghdad airport, Berlusconi has come under new public pressure to take a cue from other countries that are withdrawing their troops from Iraq.

On Monday, 160 troops from the Netherlands arrived home as part of a phased Dutch withdrawal. On Tuesday, Ukraine welcomed back more than 130 members of its 1,650-person force and has said it would complete a pullout by October. Poland plans to remove a few hundred of its 1,700 soldiers this summer and the rest by early 2006.

Berlusconi’s political coalition faces regional elections in April and legislative elections next year. He has indicated he will again head a ticket as candidate for prime minister.

A withdrawal “will depend on the capability of the Iraqi government to be able to assume responsibility for security,” Berlusconi said. It was the first time he had set a tentative timetable for a pullout. He said he had “spoken about it” with Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair. He made no mention of notifying President Bush.

On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan advised reporters not to make a cause-and-effect link between Berlusconi’s decision and the Baghdad shooting incident. He played down the significance of a possible Italian exit, saying it would be keyed to the ability of Iraqi forces to assume more responsibility and be done in coordination with allies.

At its peak, U.S. and allied forces numbered about 300,000 troops sent by 38 countries. The contributing states have dropped to 24 and troop strength to about 170,000. Spain, with 1,300 soldiers, led a group of 10 dropouts last year. In February, Portugal withdrew its 127 soldiers and Moldova pulled out its 12.

Iraq’s 275-seat assembly is to convene Wednesday for the first time in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. After taking their oaths of public office, the delegates will listen to at least six speakers, including a United Nations representative. As provided in the interim constitution, the eldest delegate will chair the first session.

Soon after, possibly Wednesday night, Shiites and Kurds plan to begin talks on dividing cabinet posts in the new government. Both sides have said they want to bring in other major groups, including Sunnis, and followers of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.

Allawi, who wants to be prime minister, has not decided whether to join the government in another post, added his spokesperson, Thaer Naquib.

The assembly’s first order of business is to elect a speaker and two deputies, and Presidency Council, consisting of a president and two vice presidents, but that task is unlikely to take place at the opening session, party sources said.

That is because everyone prefers to hold those elections only after agreement is reached on who will be prime minister and who will hold which ministries in the new government.

The carefully worded document that the Kurds and Shiites have been drafting likely will be made public once it is signed, officials on both sides said. It sets out the two sides’ understandings of how the new government should deal with a number of sensitive issues, including the insurgency gripping the country, respect for civil liberties, the conditions for requesting a withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the role of religion in governmental decision-making, they said.

It also addresses issues of particular concern to the Kurds, including the role of their militia, the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the creation of a federal system.

On Tuesday, a U.S. soldier was killed and six others wounded when a bomb detonated during a patrol in Baghdad, U.S. military officials said. Several Iraqis and an Iraqi policeman were also wounded. A U.S. Marine with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died Monday in Anbar province, military officials reported Tuesday.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service