Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said a premature withdrawal of Italian troops from his country would be catastrophic and that the presence of multinational forces in Iraq was vital.

Talabani arrived in Rome on Monday for a visit that includes talks with Italy's top officials and a meeting at the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI.

"Those who think terrorism in Iraq is the result of the presence of multinational forces are wrong," Talabani said in comments published in Monday's editions of La Stampa daily.

Saddam Hussein loyalists and al-Qaida terrorists "cannot bear a democracy in the heart of the Middle East," he said. "That's why the continuous presence of multinational forces is absolutely vital to us."

Talabani met with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi on Monday afternoon, but no details were released.

The Iraqi official was to hold talks with Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini on Tuesday.

Berlusconi, who supported the United States in its war in Iraq despite strong domestic opposition, sent about 3,000 troops to the country after the ouster of Saddam in 2003. Italy is now gradually pulling out its contingent.

Talabani praised Italy's commitment and said "a premature withdrawal would be a catastrophe for the Iraqi people and a victory of terrorism."

Later, in comments to state TV news Tg1, Talabani said the decision to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq should be made with the agreement of Iraqi authorities.

"We don't only want to see only the English and the Americans in Iraq, but also the other Europeans," Talabani said. "It's important for us, but also for them."

Berlusconi has stressed any pullout of Italian troops would be made in agreement with the Iraqi government and international allies. Defense Minister Antonio Martino has said it was "plausible" that the Italian contingent could be withdrawn in the first half of 2006.

Talabani is expected to meet with the pope on Thursday. Iraqi Christians number about 800,000 — about 3 percent of the population. Most belong to the Chaldean Church, an Eastern-rite church that is loyal to the pope but does not follow the Roman church's Latin rite.

Chaldean bishops from Iraq and elsewhere were in Rome on Monday to discuss the situation of Chaldeans in Iraq and the world, Vatican Radio said.

Monsignor Philip Najim, who represents the Chaldean Church at the Holy See, echoed Talabani's comments, saying international troops had a duty to stay in Iraq.

"This situation in Iraq didn't exist before. It was borne by the presence of the troops, and I am forced to ask that they not leave Iraq," he told Vatican Radio.