Italian withdrawal won`t be defined by Calipari`s death

Prime Minister &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Silvio Berlusconi insisted on Thursday that U.S. soldiers were to blame for the death of an Italian agent in Iraq, but said the incident would not harm U.S. ties or speed an Italian withdrawal from Iraq.

Relations between Italy and the United States have come under severe strain following the March 4 killing of Nicola Calipari at a U.S. checkpoint, with Washington and Rome blaming each other.

In a somber address to parliament, Berlusconi looked to strike a delicate balance between defending national dignity and reassuring his powerful ally that relations would remain strong, tells Reuters.

According to FT news, Italy's deployment of 3,000 troops in Iraq is unpopular with large sections of the electorate. Some centre-left opposition politicians suspect the government is looking for an "exit strategy" that would win public support ahead of national elections due next year.

&to=http:// ' target=_blank>Romano Prodi, who will challenge Mr Berlusconi for the premiership in the elections, said on Wednesday that the centre-left must take care not to be wrong-footed by a sudden government announcement of a troop withdrawal.

The centre-left opposes Italy's military presence in Iraq and hopes to exploit the issue to its advantage in the forthcoming elections, which must be held by next May.

Soon after Nicola Calipari, the intelligence agent, was shot dead by US forces on March 4, Mr Berlusconi suggested that he would like to start pulling out Italy's forces in September.

That idea was widely regarded as an attempt to defuse the Iraq issue before an important round of regional elections in April. Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition crashed to defeat in those elections, losing 12 out of 14 contests.

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