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Italy to begin Iraq withdrawal in fall

Its 3,000 soldiers are 4th-largest of foreign forces

ROME -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Washington's most ardent supporters in Iraq, signaled his intention yesterday 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 US-led force.

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 US troops near the Baghdad airport, Berlusconi has come under renewed 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. Ukraine welcomed back more than 130 members of its 1,650-person force yesterday 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.

''We will begin to reduce our contingent even before the end of the year, starting in September, in agreement with our allies," Berlusconi said yesterday during a talk show on state-run television.

A withdrawal ''will depend on the capability of the Iraqi government to be able to assume responsibility for security," he said. But it was the first time he had set a tentative timetable for a pullout. He said he had ''spoken about it" with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Berlusconi made no mention of notifying President Bush.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday advised reporters not to make a cause-and-effect link between Berlusconi's decision and the Baghdad shooting on March 4 in Baghdad of an Italian intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, as he escorted a recently released hostage to freedom. He downplayed 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.

Berlusconi made his comments shortly after Italy's parliament voted to finance the operation of Italian troops in Iraq through June. In Iraq, an Italian soldier died after shooting himself in the head during target practice yesterday.

At its peak, US and allied forces numbered about 300,000 troops sent by a total of 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.

In developments in Iraq yesterday:

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

A suicide car bomb exploded in northeastern Baghdad, killing a child and wounding at least four people, including a police officer, police Colonel Muhanad Sadoun said. The bomber was trying to hit a patrol of traffic police but crashed into a tree, Sadoun said.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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