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ROME, April 4 (Reuters) - Italy could withdraw its female troops stationed in Afghanistan to protest against a new law for the country's Shi'ite minority that has been attacked as a blow to women's rights, the Italian defence minister said.
Italy, which is the sixth largest troop contributor to the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan, is the latest to express concern on the Shi'ite Personal Status Law after some Afghan lawmakers criticised it as legalising marital rape.
"I realise that it would not be a very easy choice," Ignazio La Russa told Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview on Saturday.
"But a temporary withdrawal of our women in uniform, perhaps with the exception of those involved in health services, could represent a very significant gesture on the role of women."
He called the new law a step back in the modernisation of Afghanistan and in contrast to the values that justify the presence of Italian troops in the country.
"Everyone would understand, Shi'ites included, that women can accomplish the same work done by men," he said, explaining his proposal.
"It would be the best education for the Afghan population.
The United States, NATO, Canada and the United Nations have already voiced concern about the law, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai says the criticisms were based on a wrong translation or misinterpretation of the law.
La Russa said his proposal had yet to be discussed with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but it was immediately welcomed by Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna.
Such a move would be a "strong reponse" to a law that violates basic women's rights, Carfagna said in a statement.
Separately, La Russa told reporters at the NATO summit in Strasbourg on Saturday that Italy would also heed the the U.S. call for more European help in Afghanistan by sending an additional 524 soldiers to the 2,665 already present there.
Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Angus MacSwan