ROME, March 15 -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, one of the United States' most ardent supporters on Iraq, said Tuesday he intended to begin withdrawing his country's troops in September. That makes Italy the latest country to announce that it will reduce or eliminate its military contingent in the U.S.-led force.
In Baghdad, with the newly elected National Assembly set to meet for the first time Wednesday, representatives from Shiite Muslim and Kurdish parties continued talks on broad policy objectives for a new government, including how to deal with the insurgency. Sources on both sides of the talks said an agreement was close.
A final accord on policy goals would smooth the way for the formation of a coalition government with Ibrahim Jafari, the interim vice president who heads the Shiite Dawa party, serving as prime minister. Jalal Talabani, a key Kurdish leader, would fill the ceremonial post of president. But appointment of the government could be days or weeks away, Iraqis involved in the talks said.
Italy, with about 3,000 soldiers in the country, is the fourth-largest contributor of foreign military forces to Iraq, after the United States, Britain and South Korea. Following the March 4 killing of an Italian intelligence agent and the wounding of a freed hostage by U.S. troops near the Baghdad airport, Berlusconi has come under new public pressure to follow other countries that are pulling out.
On Monday, 160 Dutch soldiers arrived home as part of a phased withdrawal. On Tuesday, Ukraine welcomed back more than 130 members of its 1,500-person force and has said it will complete its pullout by October. Poland is planning to remove a few hundred of its 1,700 soldiers this summer and the rest by early 2006.
Berlusconi's political coalition faces regional elections in April and legislative elections next year. He has indicated he will again head a ticket as candidate for prime minister.
"We will begin to reduce our contingent even before the end of the year, starting in September, in agreement with our allies," Berlusconi said during a interview on state-run television Tuesday.
A withdrawal "will depend on the capability of the Iraqi government to be able to assume responsibility for security," he said. But it was the first time he had set a tentative timetable for a pullout. He said he had "spoken about it" with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but he made no mention of notifying President Bush.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan advised reporters not to make a cause-and-effect link between Berlusconi's decision and the Baghdad shooting incident. He played down the significance of a possible Italian withdrawal, saying it would be keyed to the ability of Iraqi forces to assume more responsibility and would be carried out in coordination with allies.
Berlusconi made his comments shortly after Italy's parliament voted to finance Italian troop operations in Iraq through June. In Iraq, an Italian soldier died after accidentally shooting himself in the head during target practice.
At its peak, the U.S.-led force totaled about 300,000, with 38 countries contributing troops. The number of contributing nations has fallen to 24, with overall foreign troop strength at about 170,000, about 150,000 of them American. Spain, which had dispatched about 1,300 soldiers, was the first of 10 nations to withdraw from Iraq last year. In February, Portugal withdrew its force of 127 and Moldova pulled its 12 soldiers.
The Italian decision came a day before Iraq's 275-seat assembly was to convene for the first time in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. After taking their oaths of office, the delegates will listen to at least six speakers, including a U.N. representative. As provided in the interim constitution, the first session will be chaired by the eldest delegate.
Shiites and Kurds then plan talks on dividing up cabinet posts in the new government. Both sides have said they want to bring in other groups, including Sunni Muslims and followers of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
Allawi, who has campaigned to retain his job in the new government, has not decided whether to stay on in another capacity. "It depends on the negotiations," said his spokesman, Thaer Naqib.
The assembly's first order of business is to elect a speaker and two deputies, and a Presidency Council, consisting of a president and two vice presidents. But that task is unlikely to take place at the opening session, party sources said.
The carefully worded document that the Kurds and Shiites have been drafting is likely to be made public once it is signed, officials on both sides said. It sets out the two sides' understandings of how the new government should deal with a number of sensitive issues, including the insurgency, respect for civil liberties, the conditions for requesting a withdrawal of U.S. troops and the role of religion in governmental decision-making, the officials said.
It also addresses issues of particular concern to the Kurds, such as the role of their militias, the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the creation of a federal system.
While the political maneuvering continued Tuesday, so did the violence. A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden car near a compound of hospitals in northeast Baghdad, killing one child and wounding at least four people, the Associated Press reported. A car bomb targeting a U.S. military convoy exploded near the main road leading to Baghdad's international airport. Four civilians died and seven were wounded, including two police officers.
In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was killed and six others were wounded when a bomb detonated during a patrol, U.S. military officials said. Several Iraqis and an Iraqi policeman were also wounded. In Anbar province west of the capital, a U.S. Marine with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died Monday, the military said.
Murphy reported from Baghdad.