Silvio Berlusconi, one of George Bush's closest allies, says he repeatedly tried to talk the US president out of invading Iraq.
In the television interview, which goes out on the day the Italian prime minister flies to Washington to meet Bush, Berlusconi says he even enlisted the help of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gadafy, in behind-the-scenes efforts to stop America going to war.
"I have never been convinced war was the best way to succeed in making a country democratic and extract it from an albeit bloody dictatorship," he points out. "I tried on several occasions to convince the American president not to wage war."
His version of events, with excerpts reported by the Apcom and Ansa news agencies at the weekend, was backed by his deputy, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the former neo-fascist party, who said: "We tried right up to the end to persuade Bush and Blair not to launch a military attack."
Berlusconi said one of the "other ways and other solutions" he had tried was a "joint action" with Colonel Gadafy, whose country is a former Italian colony.
Coming after Lewis Libby's indictment capped a crisis week for the Bush administration, Berlusconi's remarks will be seen by many in Washington as treacherous. Italy's prime minister is standing for re-election in just over five months and polls indicate that his support for Bush is a major handicap. He became closely identified with Bush soon after coming to office in 2001 and avoided criticism of US policy in the run-up to the war. In March 2003 he told parliament the use of force against Iraq was legitimate and Italy could not abandon the Americans "in their fight against terrorism".
Yesterday Berlusconi's aides played down the remarks, pointing to two earlier occasions on which he had alluded to "doubts" and "reservations" about the invasion.
His latest remarks were nevertheless at odds with public perceptions of his stance and astonished his political rivals. "What's going on?" asked Romano Prodi, the leader of the centre-left.
Though Italian troops did not take part in the invasion of Iraq they have played a prominent role since. Italy's 3,000-strong contingent is the third largest in the US-led coalition. Berlusconi has repeatedly indicated that he intends to reduce Italy's presence, and an initial withdrawal of 300 soldiers took place in September, The Guardian reports.
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