Italy: planning troop withdrawal from Iraq by January 2006

Italy will begin by January 2006 to plan when and how it will withdraw its troops from Iraq, Italy's defense minister said Tuesday, according to his ministry.

Antonio Martino, who was in Washington, made the remarks after meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Italian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry noted, however, that "the gradual withdrawal of the soldiers will not amount to an Italian abandonment of the commitments made with the allies and the Iraqi government."

Italy sent about 2,900 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, despite strong opposition among Italians. The center-right government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi has said it plans to withdraw the troops in groups of 300 and in accordance with the Iraqi government, likely in the first half of 2006. Berlusconi reiterated that position Tuesday during a visit to Tunisia.

Opposition leader Romano Prodi, who opposed the Iraq war, has said he would replace Italian troops in Iraq with a civilian force if his center-left coalition wins upcoming elections.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said repeatedly during a visit to Italy earlier this month that coalition forces should not leave Iraq until the country can guarantee its own security. Talabani also said that any decision to withdraw foreign troops from Iraq should be made after consultation with and agreement from Iraqi authorities.

Separately, the ministry said the United States was withdrawing its submarines from La Maddalena, a tiny island off Sardinia's north coast that hosts a U.S. Naval support facility. The move is part of a general reshuffling of U.S. military forces and resources throughout Europe, and the timing of the move will be decided later, the ministry said.

Politicians and residents on the islands have opposed the servicing of U.S. nuclear submarines, and objected to the Italian government's approving La Maddalena for a base in 1972 without consulting Parliament in Rome.

Two years ago, a fast attack submarine touched the sea bottom in shallow water near La Maddalena, prompting alarm. However, no one was injured and there was no environmental damage, reported AP. P.T.

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