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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 12:27 GMT
Italy press cynical on troop move
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Silvio Berlusconi on television
Berlusconi announced the withdrawal plans while on a chat show
The Italian press says Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conditional decision to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq later this year is an election tactic.

Editorials drew comparisons between Mr Berlusconi and his UK counterpart Tony Blair - both facing upcoming elections, and both facing largely hostile public opinion over military involvement in Iraq.

The leading Milan daily Corriere della Sera says Mr Berlusconi's decision is aimed at triggering an immediate effect in favour of candidates supporting his centre-right coalition, just over two weeks ahead of local elections in which some 40 million Italians can vote.

Italy is the fourth-largest contributor to coalition forces in Iraq. The Italian decision to withdraw its 3,300-strong contingent after September will leave a gap which may have to be filled by Britain.

Ballot box fear

Italian forces are mostly stationed in southern Iraq, which is under British military command. The Italian prime minister said he had consulted Mr Blair before announcing his decision on television on Tuesday.

The leading opposition newspaper La Repubblica commented: "Berlusconi and Blair both fear the ballot box."

It said that Mr Blair and Mr Berlusconi now face the same dilemma: how to soothe public opinion over Iraq and at the same time maintain good relations with US President George W Bush.

Italian opposition leaders, always strongly against the war in Iraq, welcomed Mr Berlusconi's decision to pull out Italian troops, but criticised his manner of making the announcement - on a late-night TV chat show, rather than to parliament.

The announcement came simultaneously with parliament's authorisation of the continued deployment of Italian soldiers until September.

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