Sat, May 20, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Prodi calls Iraq war an `error' in speech to Italian parliament

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ROME

Romano Prodi, the new Italian prime minister, called the war in Iraq a "grave error" on Thursday in a speech in which he set Italy on a decisively different, more conventionally European, course from that of his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi.

"Our country needs a strong jolt," Prodi said in a 90-minute address to the upper house of Parliament on his first full day in office.

The speech amounted to an inaugural announcement of his priorities, and he pledged major changes to Berlusconi's approach on labor laws, conflict of interest, tax evasion and Italy's deep public debt.

But it was on the issue of Iraq that Prodi spoke most sharply, reining Italy back from Berlusconi's close relationship with US President George W. Bush and, in especially strong words, adopting a more skeptical stance on the war in Iraq.

"We consider the war in Iraq and the occupation of the country a grave error," he said, adding that Italy would continue to value a strong relationship with Washington.

"It has not resolved, but complicated, the situation of security ... Terrorism has found a new base in Iraq and new excuses for terror attacks both inside and outside the country," he said.

His speech was interrupted by catcalls of "Shame, Shame" from the new center-right opposition. The hostile reception, both inside the chamber and outside in angry comments from center-right senators, came as a loud reminder of a fundamental challenge for Prodi: his slim majority of just two seats in the Senate, which may make major changes difficult.

But for all the emotion on both sides, Prodi's plan for Iraq does not seem to differ substantially from the one Berlusconi put into place under pressure during the election campaign, as he faced criticism for his strong support of Bush when most Italians opposed the war.

Berlusconi had pledged to withdraw all Italian troops by the end of the year. While Prodi, on Thursday and in campaign documents, has called for an immediate withdrawal, he repeated the past qualification that it would not happen until after consultations with Iraqi authorities.

The bottom line, which has been expressed to US officials, is that Prodi does not intend an overnight withdrawal like that carried out by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain after he won two years ago. Italian troops, in fact, still may not leave Iraq until the end of the year.

"We never thought of an exit from Iraq in the way Zapatero organized it, one day to the other," said Prodi's spokesman, Silvio Sircana.

In these first days of the new government -- the first in five years -- all sides in Italy's fractious and noisy political opera are feeling through their new places amid the change. Berlusconi, accustomed to near-unchallenged power, is now the opposition leader and has publicly pledged to bring down Prodi's government as quickly as possible.

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