Obama asks Italy for more troops

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Italy’s centre-right government signalled on Wednesday its readiness to send more troops to Afghanistan after Barack Obama telephoned Silvio Berlusconi to explain the new US strategy and ask for more help.

The Italian prime minister’s office said Mr Berlusconi “responded positively” to the US president’s request for a “reinforcement of the international effort” in Afghanistan.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, also called Ignazio La Russa, his Italian counterpart. Mr La Russa told reporters Italy was ready to increase its presence in Afghanistan but had not decided by how much.

Mr Obama’s lobbying effort comes ahead of an address to the nation he is expected to make on December 1 when, according to US officials, he will announce his decision to send around 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Italy is a major troop contributor in Afghanistan, but the deaths in September of six soldiers in a single ambush in Kabul exposed serious differences within the ruling centre-right coalition amid waning public support. The Northern League, a junior but key partner in the government, wanted all troops brought home but the government said it would only withdraw several hundred of about 3,000 Italian troops by Christmas.

Any Italian reinforcement in Afghanistan would probably be matched by decreases in its other international peacekeeping commitments in Lebanon and the Balkans.

Mr Berlusconi’s office said Franco Frattini, foreign minister, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, would meet to work out details of Italy’s increased contribution. Mr Frattini said that Italy wanted clear objectives and a timetable for withdrawal before sending more troops.

Mr Berlusconi and cabinet members also discussed Afghanistan with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary general who is visiting Rome. An Italian statement said they agreed that a new approach was needed, including an increase in civilian assistance and training of Afghan troops and police.

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