Having claimed Italy's troops would be withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2005, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced to eat his words following international reaction.

After conversations with, among others, United States President George W. Bush, Berlusconi admitted his claim of a Christmas-time homecoming was more a 'wish' than a cast-iron guarantee.

The news comes after the still unexplained shooting of secret servant agent Nicola Calipari by United States forces during the rescue of kidnapped Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena on 4 March. It also comes after the accidental death in mid March of an Italian soldier, bringing the number of Italian military dead to 22. The announcement has also been made just before important regional elections in early April in which parties in Berlusconis centre-right coalition are expected to lose votes.

The Italian prime minister has been one of the closest allies of president Bush over the war in Iraq and there are more than 3,000 Italian troops serving there; but Italys involvement in the war has never been popular among voters. The withdrawal is seen in coalition circles as less of a military reversal than a political one, but British military may find it more difficult to cover the territory under their command if the Italian troops leave.