ROME, April 20 -- Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, his government reeling from recent electoral setbacks, resigned on Wednesday, technically ending the life of Italy's longest-lasting post-World War II government.
However, Berlusconi said he would form a new cabinet as soon as the country's ceremonial president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, gave him permission. Italian commentators said Ciampi was likely to do so, because Berlusconi is considered the only leader capable of putting together a government without holding new elections.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose government survived for four years, addresses the Senate.
(Plinio Lepri -- AP)
Berlusconi told Italy's Senate that his resignation was a kind of sacrificial gesture designed to breathe new life into his teetering government. "All the parties in the coalition have formally renewed their confidence in me as their leader and asked me to resign," he said. "I accept the challenge of forming a new government."
In early April, Berlusconi's coalition lost 12 of 14 local elections. His popularity has suffered as Italy's economy has stagnated, the rate of inflation has crept up and unemployment has hovered around 10 percent.
Berlusconi is one of Europe's staunchest backers of the Bush administration and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. His decision to maintain 2,700 troops in Iraq has not been popular with Italian voters. But his support for the United States became a political liability after March 4, when U.S. soldiers shot and killed an Italian intelligence agent who was escorting a freed Italian hostage from Baghdad to the city's airport.
The freed hostage, Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist, was wounded when the soldiers shot at the car as it drove toward an impromptu roadblock. U.S. military officials have said that the incident was an accident and that the slain intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, had failed to coordinate his moves with U.S. officials in Iraq. Berlusconi appealed to President Bush to acknowledge a "tragic error." Bush never did, though he offered his condolences to Berlusconi.
Berlusconi's political problems were heightened when two minor members of his coalition pulled out of the cabinet last week. They vowed nonetheless to support the Berlusconi government in any vote of confidence. Under Italy's constitution, a prime minister is obliged to step down if he makes major cabinet changes. He will now try to rebuild his support through a ministerial shuffle and by doling out patronage in Italian state industries and perhaps government-run television.
Berlusconi has been in power for four years; general elections are scheduled for next spring. On Thursday and Friday, Ciampi will consult with political leaders before deciding whether to give Berlusconi a chance to reconstitute his cabinet. In the meantime, Berlusconi will stay in office as a caretaker.