"We have won, and now we have to start working to implement our program and unify the country," Romano Prodi told Italians after the official count confirmed from that country's national elections confirmed exit polls showing Prodi's center-left coalition had deposed the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had allied Italy with George W. Bush's foreign policies.
With his Olive Tree coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, liberals, Greens, Socialists, former Communists and Communists on track to gain solid control of the lower of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and a narrow majority in the upper house, the Senate, Prodi says he is positioned to begin to implement an ambitious agenda. If all goes as planned, one of the new prime minister's first moves will be to pull Italy's contingent of 2,600 troops out of Iraq.
That will deprive the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" occupation force in Iraq of its fourth largest contingent.
The Italian withdrawal will be the latest blow to the administration spin that suggests the occupation is a multinational initiative. A score of countries have withdrawn their troops or are in the process of doing so. Many of the exits were hastened by elections that -- as in Italy this week -- saw voters chose political leaders and parties that promised to quit the coalition.
With Italy out, only three countries -- the U.S., Great Britain and South Korea -- will have more than 1,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.
The Italian exit is expected to come quickly.
Prodi's coalition promised during the campaign to implement an immediate withdrawal and, in nationally-televised debate last week he spelled out how it will work. "When we go to the government we'll decide for a speedy pullout of the troops, in secure conditions, talking with the Iraqi authorities," said Prodi, who explained that his priority would be to implement the exit strategy "as soon as possible."
Prodi could have a hard time implementing much of his program, as the close divide in the Senate and his own unwieldy coalition are likely to make governing difficult. But the process of getting Italian troops home will be eased by the fact that many member of Berlusconi's coalition also favor withdrawal. Indeed, in an attempt to diffuse the war issue during the recent campaign, Berlusconi, himself, had suggested that he would try to get Italian troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush and his supporters spent a great deal of time talking about a "coalition of the willing" that at one time included four dozen countries. The president's use of the term "coalition" was always something of a misnomer, as it suggested a great deal of shared responsibility, when in fact the overwhelming majority of troops on the ground were from the U.S. Aside from the U.S. and Great Britain, no country ever had more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, and many of the coalition "partners" never had more than 100 troops in the country. Additionally, some of the largest troops contingents came from countries in eastern and central Europe that had been coerced to join the coalition by the U.S., which promised support for their efforts to integrate into international economic and political organizations in return for the commitment of troops to Iraq.
The president makes few references to his "coalition of the willing" these days because the coalition has been crumbling. Among the countries that have exited the coalition are Singapore (in January 2004), Nicaragua (February 2004); Spain (April 2004); Dominican Republic (May 2004); Honduras (May 2004); Norway (June 2004), Philippines (July 2004); Thailand (August 2004); New Zealand (September 2004); Tonga (December 2004) Hungary (December 2004); Portugal (February 2005); Moldova (February 2005); Netherlands (June 2005), Ukraine (December 2005) and Bulgaria (January 2006).Compared with the U.S. casualty rate, the Italians have suffered relatively few losses in Iraq.
But those losses have been deeply felt, as they have been in other coalition countries. Twenty-seven Italian soldiers died in Iraq, according to a CNN count. That's out of a coalition death toll, as of April 10 of 2,560 -- 2,353 of them Americans, one Australian, 103 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, three Danes, two Dutch, two Estonians, one Fijian, one Hungarian, one Kazakh, one Latvian, 17 Poles, two Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and 18 Ukrainians.
Prodi has always said that the Italian death toll was 27 too many.
Prodi, a former prime minister, reentered Italian politics two years ago -- after serving as president of the European Commission -- when he backed a campaign against Italian participation in the coalition that used the slogan: "Iraq: A Wrongful War." Now, as the prime minister once more, Prodi will be able to implement the promise of that campaign by withdrawing Italian troops from the coalition and by further confirming that the ongoing occupation of Iraq is George W. Bush's project -- as opposed to that of a genuine "coalition of the willing."