Italy will withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, the defense minister said Thursday, giving the first official timetable for Rome to end its mission.
In an address to a parliamentary committee, Defense Minister Antonio Martino said the operation would "be considered concluded at the end of the year, having definitively completed its mission."
Italy has 2,600 troops based in southern Iraq. The country's military mission will be phased out over the year and a civilian force will replace it, Martino said.
The withdrawal was being made in agreement with allies and according to a timetable that allows for Iraq's reconstruction, he said.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, "Italy is doing this all in close consultation with coalition forces."
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally, defied strong domestic opposition and sent about 3,000 troops to help rebuild Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Berlusconi is campaigning for general elections, set for April 9, and faces former Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
Prodi has said that if elected, his center-left coalition will phase out Italian troops and replace the military contingent with a civilian force.
Prodi pledged that under him, Italy would not disengage from Iraq, resisting calls from the far left for an immediate withdrawal.
The Italian forces will be reduced by 300 this month and there will be "a reduction of some 1,000 men" by the end of June, Martino said.
"By June 2006, we will have achieved an overall reduction of nearly half of the contingent. At the beginning of the second half of the year, around 1,600 men will remain," he said.
The last half of 2006 will witness "ever wider civilian cooperation and a corresponding progressive disengagement" of the Italian military, he said.
The withdrawal announcement "pulled the rug out from under" the opposition ahead of the April elections, said Gianfranco Pasquino, a political science professor at the University of Bologna.
"The public wants the troops to return, so it won't matter to them" which political camp achieves that, Pasquino said.