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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 15:30 GMT
Italy to pull out of Iraq in 2006
Italian soldier
A majority of Italians oppose the war in Iraq
The Italian government has announced that it will pull its troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.

Defence Minister Antonio Martino's statement marked the first official confirmation of a timetable.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had recently hinted that Italy's 2,500 contingent could return home in 2006.

The country's involvement in the war, which has been deeply unpopular among Italians, is likely to be a key issue in April's general election.

'Mission accomplished'

Mr Martino said troops would be withdrawn gradually throughout the year and replaced with a civilian force.

He told a parliament committee the pull-out timetable had been agreed in conjunction with coalition forces in Iraq.

"The military operation Antica Babilonia [Ancient Babylon] will end its mandate gradually over the course of the year 2006 and the mission will be considered over and accomplished at the end of the year," said Mr Martino.

The main opposition parties had said they would bring the troops home immediately if they won the 9 April election.

Italy, a staunch ally of the Bush administration, sent about 3,000 soldiers to Iraq to help with the reconstruction in the south after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The force has come under several attacks, the worst being in November 2003 when 19 Italians, mostly police officers, were killed in a suicide attack in Nasiriya.

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