One of US President George Bush's closest allies, Berlusconi had shocked friend and foe alike on Tuesday when he said Italy would start pulling out its troops in September.

But on Wednesday, the prime minister back tracked considerably and insisted "there's never been a fixed date".

"It was only my hope... If it is not possible, it is not possible. The solution should be agreed with the allies."

Berlusconi's comments came as Bush insisted the US-led coalition in Iraq was not crumbling.

Bush rhetoric

"I think the coalition has been buoyed by the courage of the Iraqi people," Bush said, adding the Italian prime minister had told him any withdrawals would be in consultation with allies.

"It was only my hope... If it is not possible, it is not possible. The solution should be agreed with the allies"

Silvio Berlusconi,
Italian prime minister

Berlusconi's initial announcement on a television chat show delivered a blow to Bush's coalition but analysts said it did not signal a U-turn in a pro-US foreign policy or retaliation for the killing of an Italian agent in Iraq by US forces.

Rather, it indicated Berlusconi was under pressure on the home front before regional elections next month.

"We are entering an important electoral phase and Berlusconi has understood that most Italians want the soldiers out," political commentator Sergio Romano said.

Although Italy played no part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it dispatched some 3000 troops after the fall of Baghdad.

Twenty-one Italian soldiers have died in Iraq.