Silvio Berlusconi has denied announcing a definite troop withdrawal from Iraq in September.
The Italian prime minister has caused a storm of controversy since saying in a television chat show on Tuesday that he had discussed the pullout with his British counterpart.
Questioned by journalists, he said such a decision would only be taken in accord with his allies, adding that if it wasn’t possible, it wouldn’t go ahead.
The announcement of the withdrawal was widely seen as a political tactic ahead of a regional vote next month and general elections next year. Italians are widely opposed to their country’s involvement in Iraq.
In a White House statement, president George W Bush insisted the US-led coalition in Iraq was united, adding that Berlusconi had confirmed his commitment in a telephone conversation:
“When he brought up the issue of Italian troops in Iraq, he said first of all he wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy, that in fact any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending on the ability of the Iraqi people to defend themselves. And I said, are you sure I can say this to the press corps, they are going to want to know what took place in our conversation, and he said, absolutely,” said Bush.
“So I think what you’re going to find is that countries will be willing or anxious to get out when Iraqis have got the ability to defend themselves,” he added. The Italians operate under British control in the southern region of Nassiriya.
British leader Tony Blair has refused to set a timetable for withdrawal saying his troops will only leave when the job is done.