ROME – Staunch U.S. ally Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search), facing rising opposition to the war in Iraq, said Tuesday that Italy would start cutting back its troops there in September if security conditions in Iraq permit.
His comments, following an outcry over the recent slaying by American soldiers of an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad (search), were the first public statement on a possible start date for withdrawal for one of Washington's closest allies.
It deals another blow to the crumbling U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, with Ukraine (search) starting a pullout this week, the Netherlands ending its mission this month, and Poland planning to withdraw some troops in July.
"Starting with the month of September, we would like to proceed with a gradual reduction of our soldiers," Berlusconi said on a state TV talk show that lasted into early Wednesday.
The center-left opposition stepped up the political heat on Berlusconi for withdrawal, after Italy on Tuesday suffered the latest death among its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq. During the same taping, Berlusconi confirmed he will run again for premier in general elections scheduled next year.
Withdrawing Italian troops "will depend on the capability of the Iraqi government to equip itself with adequate police and security forces" to establish "acceptable" security levels, the premier said.
Berlusconi said he had discussed the coalition situation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), another strong Washington ally. "We need to construct a precise exit strategy, also because our publics' opinions expect this communication and we agree to talk about it soon."
As of now, the reduction in the Italian contingent will start "even before the year's end, in agreement with out allies," Berlusconi added.
Italy has some 3,000 troops in southern Iraq, and its government has been a big backer of U.S. President George W. Bush's stance on Iraq.
Last fall, Italy's defense minister said coalition troops in Iraq could be cut gradually after Iraq's elections in January if Iraq could provide its own security, but he didn't cite a timetable.
Italians were angered over the shooting death of agent Nicola Calipari March 4 as he escorted a newly freed hostage, and its leaders have demanded U.S. authorities conduct a transparent investigation.
"Bush knows he can't disappoint his faithful ally" about the investigation, said Berlusconi, who previously tried to get political mileage out of his friendship with the American leader.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "We certainly appreciate the contributions of the Italians." He described the Italian leader's remarks on Iraq as "very similar to the comments he made last week."
After Calipari was slain by U.S. troops mistakenly firing on his vehicle, Berlusconi's government had made it clear it wasn't yanking its contingent from Iraq.
The opposition criticized Berlusconi for making such an important announcement on a talk show instead of in Parliament, which was voting at virtually that very hour to extend financing for the deployment.
"It's grave that while in Parliament we're debating and we're voting on the renewal of the Italian military mission in Iraq, Premier Silvio Berlusconi, instead of coming to the Chamber to make his declarations, to the disrespect of institutions, declares that in September he intends to prepare the gradual withdrawal of the Italian soldiers from Iraq," said Greens lawmaker Paolo Cento.
Also on Tuesday evening, in a separate development, Italy's lower house of parliament approved the extension of financing for troop deployment in Iraq through June. Berlusconi's conservatives have a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
The Senate already voted to extend the mission last month.