Arrivederci, Iraq?

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The words of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may not be the best guide to the future of Italy's troop presence in Iraq. Last week, in New York, the Italian leader declared that his troops will stay as long as needed to guarantee security. But two days later, back in Rome, he boasted that his promised staggered withdrawal of the troops was going splendidly. Over the past six months, Berlusconi has changed his tune more times than a Neapolitan crooner as he tries to satisfy Italian anti-war sentiment while supporting his allies in Washington and London. Still, the facts speak clearly: Since the summer, some 10 percent of Italy's 3,000 Carabienieri military police and soldiers (the third largest foreign troop contingent in Iraq after Britain) have returned home — and have not been replaced. More may be coming home soon.

The latest word that more Italian troops may leave came Tuesday from Aziz Kadhim Alwan, the governor of Iraq's southern province of Dhiqar, whose provincial capital is Nasiriyah, who was in Rome for talks with the defense ministry. He confirmed that 300 Italians stationed in Nasiriyah have left, and that more could be leaving by the end of December. But the governor cautioned that any withdrawal should be gradual, and should only happen when security can be guaranteed by local forces.

In fact, things may be improving in the relatively stable Shi'ite province. But Italy's policy on the war in Iraq has always been as much political as military or ideological. Berlusconi made a point of declaring his support for Bush on the lead up to the war, but waited until Baghdad fell before sending “peacekeeping” troops. Still, he has staked his political fortune with U.S. foreign policy from Day One, and has been showered with attention by the U.S. president in return. But polls show more than 80 percent of Italians opposed the war, and the loss of 19 men in a November 2003 suicide bombing, as well as several hostage crises and the accidental shooting by American troops of an Italian intel officer, has hurt Berlusconi. Now, six months before the controversial billionaire leader will make his bid for reelection, there are signs he wants the storyline during the campaign to be that the troops are on their way home. He quickly brushed off a suggestion last week that even if Nasiriyah was secure, Italian troops could be transferred to Baghdad where things are obviously not under control As for Berlusconi's expected rival, center-left leader and former EU commission president Romano Prodi, he has already promised that if he wins, all the troops will come home.