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Berlusconi resigns amid crisis

Silvio Berlusconi

ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Caught in a political crisis and facing a vote of no confidence in the Senate, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has handed in his resignation to Italian President Carlo Ciampi after telling senators he planned to form a new government with different coalition partners.

Berlusconi's office confirmed Wednesday he had resigned. Ciampi's office was expected to issue a statement soon.

In an address to senators, Berlusconi recalled the challenges his government has faced over the past four years, including international terrorism following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, and said he was proud of the way those challenges have been handled.

Now, the country is facing "a difficult phase," Berlusconi said. "Not more than two weeks ago, the country was giving signs of unrest and disquiet, which were very important. I understand these signals, and I wanted to give a political response."

Berlusconi was to face a no-confidence vote Thursday. His ruling coalition ran into trouble recently when his Forza Italia party lost 11 of 13 regional elections and the Union of Christian Democrats, a coalition party, quit the coalition.

His government is the 59th Italian government since 1949, but the longest-serving in modern times. Its five-year term was not due to end until 2006.

But Berlusconi's popularity has declined as the Italian economy has slipped and opposition to Italian involvement in the U.S.-led war in Iraq has increased.

Berlusconi, a staunch ally of U.S. President George Bush, said last month Italy's 3,000 troops in Iraq may begin a partial withdrawal this fall.

The country's contingent is the third-largest force among U.S. allies in Iraq, behind Britain and South Korea. Twenty-eight Italians have died in the conflict -- 21 military personnel, six civilians and one intelligence officer.

In his speech Wednesday, Berlusconi said: "What is happening is natural, and I don't want to dramatize artificially a very complicated situation." But he pledged to form a new government that will serve as a "unifying force."

Sources told CNN Ciampi was expected to begin consulting with political leaders to assess the situation, and plans to continue through Friday.

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