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Soldier's death stirs Italy debate

ROME -- The first combat death of an Italian soldier in Iraq yesterday led to new pressure on Premier Silvio Berlusconi to pull out troops and distance himself from the Bush administration.

The development came days before the Italian premier travels to Washington, where he is expected to meet with President Bush. Opposition leaders contended that after heavy fighting in the past three days and scattered clashes in the past weeks, the mission can no longer be described as humanitarian.

''The context is one of war and the mission is not one of peace," opposition lawmaker Luciano Violante said yesterday. ''We want to know what Berlusconi will tell Bush in light of the recent events."

The Italian soldier -- a 22-year-old volunteer from Venice -- died yesterday of wounds suffered during an attack a day earlier on an Italian military base in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. Nine other Italians have been slightly injured in three days of clashes with the attackers, who are believed to be supporters of the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Italian troops pulled out of the Libeccio base Sunday and relocated to a nearby air base. But by yesterday, they regained control after militias abandoned the base -- apparently after negotiations between the Italians and local Shi'ite leaders, military Chief of Staff Administrator Giampaolo Di Paola said.

The slain soldier -- Corporal Matteo Vanzan -- was the 20th Italian to die in Nasiriyah, but the first to be killed in combat. The 19 others were killed in a bombing attack Nov. 12.

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