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In Italy, Bush confers with pope, Prodi

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

ROME — President Bush yesterday defended his humanitarian record to Pope Benedict XVI, who expressed concern about "the worrisome situation in Iraq."

Mr. Bush also sought to shore up relations with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose center-left government has been heavily critical of U.S. policies. Although Mr. Prodi has withdrawn Italian forces from Iraq, Mr. Bush thanked him for Italy's leadership in supporting the fragile Western-backed government in Lebanon and its commitment of 2,000 troops for NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

Relations with Italy are "pretty darn solid," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Prodi agreed. "We basically agree on how the future of the world should look, should be," the Italian leader said.

The president went to the Vatican for his first meeting with the pope, who has lamented the "continual slaughter" in Iraq and concluded that "nothing positive comes from Iraq."

The pope asked Mr. Bush about his talks last week in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time of deep strain between Moscow and Washington. "The dialogue with Putin was also good?" the pope asked.

"I'll tell you in a minute," Mr. Bush said, mindful of the presence of reporters and television cameras during the photo opportunity. They both laughed.

"I was talking to a very smart, loving man," the president said later of his discussion with the pope. "I was in awe, and it was a moving experience."

Highly unpopular in Italy and across Europe, Mr. Bush highlighted U.S. efforts to fight disease and poverty in Africa. The president noted that he had asked Congress to double the commitment for fighting AIDS in Africa, from $15 billion to $30 billion.

Tens of thousands of anti-globalization and far-left activists marched through the capital's ancient center to protest Mr. Bush's visit. As the protests were concluding, riot police used tear gas on small groups who threw bottles and donned masks in defiance of a police order.

More than an hour into the clashes, police charged the demonstrators, pursuing them down alleyways to break up the crowd as helicopters circled overhead. The news agency ANSA said six persons were taken into custody.

White House aides shrugged off the protests, calling them democracy in action.

The president received a splashy Vatican welcome. Television cameras recorded his every move as he walked through marbled Vatican halls to the pope's private library. The president and pope talked for 35 minutes. Afterward, Laura Bush, wearing a black mantilla head covering, joined the president and the pope.

The president said the pope expressed concern that the Muslim majority in Iraq was intolerant of Christians. A Vatican statement said Mr. Bush, in talks with the pope and the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, discussed the "worrisome situation in Iraq" and the "critical conditions in which the Christian communities [in Iraq] are found," the statement said.

Mr. Bush said the United States is pressing Iraq — torn by sectarian violence — to live by a constitution "that would honor people from different walks of life and different attitudes." He said there was no discussion whether Iraq was a "just war."

The president, who became ill Friday, was still suffering some affects of a stomach problem.

Spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president was "not 100 percent," but "it's not slowing him down a bit." As previously scheduled, Mr. Bush had nothing on his schedule yesterday evening. He departs early today to visit Albania and Bulgaria.

Mr. Bush also met privately with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a like-minded conservative and strong ally of the president's.

"He is the opposition leader, and he is a friend," Mr. Bush said, explaining his decision to visit with Mr. Berlusconi. He said Mr. Prodi didn't "blame" him for stopping to chat with the prime minister's predecessor.

c Associated Press writers Ariel David and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this article.