- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of President Bush’s strongest supporters over Iraq, says he tried repeatedly to dissuade the American leader from going to war and was never convinced military force was the best way to bring democracy.

Mr. Berlusconi is facing a tough re-election battle next year, and his popularity has fallen in part because of Italians’ continued opposition to the war. Sluggish economic growth also has hurt him.

The prime minister made the comments in an interview with the private television station La7 that is to be broadcast tomorrow, the same day Mr. Berlusconi is to meet with Mr. Bush in Washington. Excerpts of the interview were reported yesterday by the Apcom and ANSA news agencies.

“I was never convinced that war was the best system to bring democracy to the country and to get rid of a bloody dictatorship,” Mr. Berlusconi said of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “I tried several times to convince the American president to not go to war.”

“I believed that military action should have been avoided,” he was quoted as saying.

Mr. Berlusconi was one of Mr. Bush’s strongest supporters in the run-up to the Iraq war. On the eve of the conflict in March 2003, he told Italian lawmakers that using force against Iraq was legitimate and that Italy couldn’t abandon the Americans “in their fight against terrorism.”

Italy didn’t send combat troops for the Iraq invasion, but it deployed 3,000 soldiers there after the fall of Saddam to help maintain security and rebuild the country.

While still supporting Mr. Bush, the Italian government has clashed with Washington over the Iraq conflict, in particular over the killing of an Italian agent by U.S. forces in March.

Opposition leader Romano Prodi, who opposed the war, has said he would replace Italian troops in Iraq with a civilian force if his center-left coalition wins parliamentary elections next year.

In Iraq yesterday, a bomb hidden in a truck loaded with dates exploded in the center of a Shi’ite farming village northeast of Baghdad, killing 26 persons and injuring at least 34. Three American soldiers died in separate bombings in Baghdad and northern Iraq.

In the west of the country, U.S. Marines said they killed 10 terrorists in villages near the Syrian border, where Air Force jets blasted a suspected militant safe house the day before. U.S. officials said an al Qaeda official from Saudi Arabia may have been killed in the air strike.

More than 2,000 American service members have been killed in the conflict.

A Pentagon report to Congress, made public in Washington yesterday, indicated that 26,000 Iraqis have been killed or wounded since Jan. 1, 2004.

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