New Italian Premier Romano Prodi said on Thursday that the US-led war on Iraq was a "grave error" and that Italian troops would be withdrawn from the country as soon as possible.
"The war in Iraq, together with the occupation of the country, was a grave error... and has complicated the security situation," the centre-left leader said in his first speech to the Senate.
"We did not agree with the war... Terrorism in Iraq has found a new base and new pretexts for terrorist actions, both internal and external to the Iraqi conflict," said the former European Commission chief, whose government was sworn into office on Wednesday.
Prodi said the some 2,600 Italian troops currently serving in Iraq would be pulled out but stressed this would take place within the "technical timeframe necessary" and after consultations with the Iraqi authorities and other sides involved.
The previous government headed by Silvio Berlusconi had already pledged to pull out by the end of 2006, a deadline which Prodi said during election campaigning that he would respect.
Prodi took care to praise the Italians serving in Iraq, saying they had demonstrated "professional ability, courage and humanity".
The premier's views on the war were the opposite of those of Berlusconi, who staunchly supported U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq three years ago and afterwards sent troops for peacekeeping and reconstruction.
Prodi and the centre left opposed Italian involvement from the start.
The premier stressed that the centre left's stance on Iraq did not indicate a lack of support for Washington or the war on terrorism, saying he intended to strengthen ties with the United States.
"The government is committed to doing everything possible to consolidate and enrich its historic alliance with the United States,on a basis of mutual respect and dignity," the former economics professor said.
"Italy will be in the front line in the fight against terrorism, " he said.
Earlier this week, the Iraqi governor of Nassiriya - the southern Iraqi city where the Italian mission is based - appealed to Italy to stay.
Governor Aziz Al Ogheli said: "Italians, please stay because we still need you".
He stressed the need for a "gradual withdrawal", saying that otherwise there was a risk of "terrorism and crime running riot".
In July, Italy's parliament votes on renewing financing for the Iraqi mission. The vote will be a major test for Prodi, who won the April election by some 25,000 votes and whose majority in the Senate rests on two seats.
The recent deaths of four Italian peacekeepers in Iraq, killed by a roadside bomb, have prompted some left-wing members of Prodi's coalition to call for an immediate withdrawal.
It was the worst attack on Italian forces serving in Iraq since November 2003, when 12 servicemen and five Carabinieri were killed in a massive car bomb in Nassiriya which also killed two Italian civilians and nine Iraqis.
Prodi said in other foreign policy points on Thursday that he was determined to help boost European strength and unity.
"The government will do everything within its power to make Europe strong and united on the international scene," he said.
In the run-up to last month's general election, Prodi said he was keen to overcome a rift which Berlusconi's pro-American line had provoked between Italy on the one side and France and Germany on the other.