- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

U.S. officials said yesterday they still value Italy’s support in Iraq despite recent comments by visiting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that he tried to discourage President Bush from going to war two years ago.

The remarks, in which Mr. Berlusconi also said he never thought the war was the best way to end dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime and bring democracy to the Middle East, will not be held against the Italian leader, the officials said.

“Relations between Italy and the United States are strong,” Mr. Bush said after his Oval Office meeting with Mr. Berlusconi, whom he called “friend.”

“I want to thank Silvio’s strong commitment to the freedom of people in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “I appreciate his strong vision of peace in the Balkans.”

Mr. Berlusconi, who has been among Mr. Bush’s staunchest supporters in Iraq along with the prime ministers of Britain and Australia, Tony Blair and John Howard, said he “admires” Mr. Bush’s “strong leadership” and praised him as “farsighted.”

He said it was a matter of “pride” to be “side by side with our American ally in extending the borders of democracy and freedom in the world.”

But in an interview with Italy’s La7 television network Mr. Berlusconi said that “military action should have been avoided” in Iraq.

“I was never convinced that war was the best system to bring democracy to the country and to get rid of a bloody dictatorship,” the prime minister said of Saddam’s Iraq.

“I tried several times to convince the American president to not go to war,” he said in the interview, which was broadcast yesterday but parts of it were released on Saturday.

Privately, administration officials said they took note of Mr. Berlusconi’s comments but did not take offense.

“He supported us all along, he sent troops to Iraq, and he still has troops in Iraq,” one official said in reference to the prime minister. “Actions speak louder than words.”

Another official suggested that a look at the “political calendar” — a hint at next year’s Italian election — would explain some of Mr. Berlusconi’s reasons for speaking about the war in a defensive manner.

Mr. Berlusconi, whose approval rating is slipping, faces a tough campaign against Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and European Commission president.

Mr. Prodi has said he would replace the Italian troops in Iraq with a civilian force if his center-left coalition wins the election.

Before the war in 2003, Mr. Berlusconi told the Italian parliament that the invasion was legitimate and that Italy could not abandon the Americans “in their fight against terrorism.”

Italy did not send combat troops for the initial operation, but it deployed 3,000 soldiers there after Saddam’s overthrow to help maintain security and rebuild the country.

Even while supporting Mr. Bush, Mr. Berlusconi’s government clashed with Washington in March over the killing of an Italian intelligence agent by U.S. forces in Iraq.

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