Italy's Course Veers From U.S.

Newly seated Italian ministers Francesco Rutelli, left, and Massimo D'Alema, sit on either side of Prime Minister Romano Prodi during his first parliamentary address to Rome's Senate. Prodi took office Wednesday.
Newly seated Italian ministers Francesco Rutelli, left, and Massimo D'Alema, sit on either side of Prime Minister Romano Prodi during his first parliamentary address to Rome's Senate. Prodi took office Wednesday. (By Pier Paolo Cito -- Associated Press)
By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 19, 2006

ROME, May 18 -- Italy's new prime minister declared Thursday that the war in Iraq was a "grave error" that risked igniting conflict in the entire Middle East region. He said Italy would stick with plans to bring home its 2,700 troops stationed there but gave no timetable for their return.

Making his first policy address as head of government, Romano Prodi formally abandoned the unequivocal support that his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, gave to U.S. policy in Iraq. Prodi appeared to indirectly criticize the United States' holding of terrorism suspects, saying such efforts must never undermine personal liberties.

Prodi was addressing the Senate, where he and his coalition have a meager margin of votes, on the eve of a vote of confidence. His camp hopes the vote will be the final confirmation of power for his coalition, which includes eight parties, among them socialists, former Communists, environmentalists and former Christian Democrats.

The group has in the past supported Italian military missions abroad -- in the Balkans, for example. But Prodi said Thursday that "we didn't agree to the war in Iraq and the Italian participation. We consider the war in Iraq and the occupation of that country a grave error."

The war "did not resolve, but rather has complicated, the problem of security," he said. "Terrorism has found in Iraq a new base and new pretexts for terrorist actions that are inside and outside the Iraqi conflict."

To hoots and whistles of dissent from Berlusconi's allies, who are now the opposition after five years in power, Prodi said that the war had "opened Pandora's box and risks setting off the entire region."

He said his government intended to bring home the 2,700 Italian troops left in southern Iraq "within the time technically necessary" and after consultation with "all the interested parties." His position was no different than that of the Berlusconi government, which in the face of strong public opposition to the war promised to bring home the soldiers by the end of 2006.

Italian forces did not take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but arrived afterward to take over security in and around the city of Nasiriyah. The force peaked at about 3,000; in recent months, about 300 soldiers have come home under Belusconi's withdrawal plan.

With Berlusconi's electoral defeat in April, President Bush lost another faithful ally in Europe. In 2004, Spanish troops pulled out almost immediately after another Bush ally, José Maria Aznar, lost an election.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has kept thousands of troops in Iraq, took a blow recently with his Labor Party's poor showing in municipal elections.

Poland has more than halved its force, to about 1,000, and Ukraine pulled out all of its soldiers after a change of government. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, often cited by Bush in stump speeches as one of his best friends abroad, plans to step down in September.

Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic had forces in Iraq but withdrew them.

Twenty-six countries, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, have troops there.

Prodi told senators Thursday that the fight against terrorism "must be conducted with political instruments, with intelligence and work against the terrorist organizations," without affecting personal liberties or rights while avoiding "crusades" and talk of "clash of civilizations."

He said he would work for a strong Europe "to consolidate and enrich, on a level of mutual respect and reciprocal dignity, the historic alliance with the United States of America."

The second-time prime minister was sworn in with his new government Wednesday. While the new cabinet members were assuming their posts, Prodi had an hour-long private meeting with Berlusconi, an unexpected exchange following a bitter campaign and vote whose results Berlusconi is still contesting.

Massimo D'Alema will be the first former Communist to act as foreign minister; Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, an economist and former board member of the European Central Bank, will be finance minister; Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister, will head the Interior Ministry.

Staff writer Fred Barbash in Washington contributed to this report.

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