ROME – More than 100 Italian troops whose tours in southern Iraq have ended are not being replaced, apparently marking the beginning of the country's withdrawal from Iraq ahead of schedule, a newspaper reported Saturday.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search), a U.S. ally, said last month that Italy would begin bringing home about 300 troops in September as Iraqi security forces become capable of securing the territory.
But the Italian daily La Stampa (search) said about 130 sailors, a squadron of CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters and some 100 army pilots, mechanics and machine-gunners had left Iraq and only half of those posts would be replaced. The newspaper did not cite sources.
A spokesman for Italy's military contingent in Nasiriyah, Iraq, reached Saturday by The Associated Press, acknowledged the troops had returned to Italy but said he could not confirm that they were not being replaced.
"I only know that they have left. You also need to consider that their tour was over," Lt. Col. Fabio Mattiassi said.
Berlusconi sent some 3,000 troops to southern Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help with reconstruction in the country. Italians were largely opposed to the war and his decision was widely criticized.