- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

President Bush said Thursday that Iran is losing influence in Iraq as Iraq develops into a “functioning democracy.”

“Obviously there is some … Iranian influence inside Iraq, but it’s less than it has been, and will continue to lessen, in my judgment, as its economy and as its political society begins to develop,” Mr. Bush said in a French television interview broadcast yesterday ahead of his arrival in Paris.

“Iraq is becoming a democracy, a functioning democracy. They understand Iranian influence is destabilizing,” he told France 3 television.

But Mr. Bush also reaffirmed he would not rule out military force as an option to force Iran to abandon its efforts to enrich uranium, which can be used to power an atomic reactor or an atomic bomb.

“Yes, it’s still there. Absolutely it’s got to be on the table. But, of course, I’ve always said to the American people, ‘we want to solve this problem diplomatically, and we’re going to work to solve it diplomatically.’”

“But the Iranians have got to understand all options are on the table.”

Speaking in Rome yesterday, Mr. Bush declined to say whether Washington would agree to a request by Rome to be included in the group of nations negotiating with Iran over efforts to curb its uranium enrichment program.

But he praised Italy for its contributions in Afghanistan and its willingness to take on a bigger role in global diplomacy and security.

Italy has 2,350 troops in Afghanistan, according to NATO figures. Like Germany, Italy has largely kept its forces outside combat zones.

Mr. Bush met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the third stop of a five-nation tour of Europe.

Mr. Berlusconi’s government is attempting to remove restrictions on Italian troops being based in combat regions of Afghanistan.

Italy’s Cabinet is expected to give its necessary approval to the measure, as early as Friday.

Italian troops are based in Kabul and in the western Afghanistan region of Herat, while the fiercest combat is taking place in southern and eastern provinces.

“We spoke about our willingness to remove the caveats for Afghanistan,” Mr. Berlusconi told reporters with Mr. Bush at his side.

Mr. Berlusconi, 71, also said, in jest, that he was backing Sen. John McCain in the U.S. presidential race because of Mr. McCain’s age.

“I would like to express my personal, very personal preference for the Republican candidate, and for an egotistical reason: that way I wouldn’t be the oldest at the [Group of Eight summit], since McCain is older than me by one month,” he said.

Mr. McCain, who was born Aug. 29, 1936, is exactly one month older than Mr. Berlusconi.

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