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Italian PM Says He Warned Bush against Iraq War


Reuters

Rome - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on the eve of a trip to Washington, said he repeatedly tried to persuade U.S. President George W. Bush against invading Iraq.

The Italian leader voiced his unease with the military operation to remove Saddam Hussein in a television interview to be broadcast on Monday, the day he meets Bush.

Berlusconi is one of Washington's strongest allies but he did not send troops to join the invasion, preferring to despatch forces only after the fall of Baghdad.

"I tried many times to convince the American president not to go to war," Berlusconi was quoted as saying by the La7 television network, which recorded the interview.

"I tried to find other avenues and other solutions, even through an activity with the African leader (Libya's Col. Muammar) Gaddafi. But we didn't succeed and there was the military operation."

Berlusconi tried to play down controversy over the interview, telling Italian media late on Saturday the fact that "I invited President Bush to not intervene in Iraq is known. I already said it many times, even in parliament."

He is scheduled to leave for Washington on Sunday.

Italy pulled about 300 soldiers from Iraq earlier this year as part of a phased withdrawal, leaving about 2,900 troops there. Berlusconi is trailing in opinion polls ahead of April elections to center-left rival Romano Prodi, who promises to withdraw Italy's forces from Iraq if he is voted into office.

Speaking on television later, Prodi asked ironically: "He finally realized that the war is wrong?"

As for Berlusconi's failure to avert the invasion, Prodi joked that it was a telling sign of the prime minister's pull in Washington: "So, now he doesn't matter at all to Bush? Not at all?"

Niger Uranium

The Italian leader has been defending himself against accusations at home that the country's intelligence agency, possibly after government pressure, passed off fake documents to Washington used to bolster claims of Iraq's nuclear ambitions.

The documents purported that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger.

His office has sent out statements in the past week categorically denying the accusations, made by left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper. Sismi intelligence agency chief Nicolo Pollari is due to address a closed-door parliamentary panel over the matter on November 3.

Bush cited intelligence that Iraq sought uranium from Africa in his State of the Union address in 2003 before the Iraq war.

The claim fueled criticism from the husband of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was later leaked, sparking a scandal that led to the indictment on Friday of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby.

"I have never been convinced that war was the best system to make a country democratic and help it escape dictatorship, even a bloody one," Berlusconi was quoted as saying by La7.

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