WASHINGTON – President Bush and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) expressed their determination Wednesday to transfer sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30 (search), a key issue for an important U.S. ally amid a persistent insurgency in parts of Iraq.
The two leaders met at the White House.
"My resolve is firm" and "the resolve of the prime minister of Italy is firm," Bush declared later at a ceremony where Berlusconi received an award for courageous leadership from the Sons of Italy Foundation.
Most Italians opposed the war, but Berlusconi says the cause is just and he sent 3,000 troops to help with reconstruction after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
Earlier, in the Oval Office, Berlusconi said that if the United States and its allies were to abandon Iraq before a democracy takes hold, the country would become "an exporter of terror."
"We've started the work which cannot be left halfway" and "we have to complete it," Berlusconi declared.
Bush said that "it's tough work there now" and "it will be tough work after sovereignty is transferred," adding that he and Berlusconi discussed how to broaden the coalition of other countries helping to rebuild Iraq to achieve the goal of free elections.
While flying to the United States on Tuesday, Berlusconi said that he wanted to be sure of "a clear turnaround" in Iraq.
Berlusconi has always rejected suggestions of withdrawing Italian troops early from Iraq. But the center-left opposition in Italy has argued against that position in recent days after attacks on Italian troops, saying a mission supposed to be about peace has become one about war.
A number of foreign leaders assisting the United States face growing domestic political pressure.
Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka (search) says he hopes that political progress in Iraq will allow his nation to start withdrawing some troops early next year.
In Ukraine, demands for withdrawing troops from Iraq increased after two soldiers were killed there last month, bringing the number of Ukrainian combat deaths to three.