WASHINGTON – President Bush praised Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) as "a strong partner in peace" Monday but the two leaders avoided any public discussion of Italy's plan to pull its troops out of Iraq.
"Relations between the United States and Italy are strong," Bush said during an Oval Office meeting with the Italian leader, one of the United States' strongest supporters in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He thanked Berlusconi for his commitment to freedom for people in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Berlusconi came to Washington facing legal troubles at home and a tough upcoming election. A frequent visitor, Berlusconi said that it was becoming "a habit for me to come pay homage to the president in the Oval Office."
The Italian leader said that at a sensitive moment in world history, Bush would be remembered as "the one who is so far sighted."
Bush's poll numbers have fallen in recent months. His choice for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, withdrew her nomination and Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide was indicted in the CIA leak investigation, among other recent setbacks.
Berlusconi's popularity also has sagged in recent months, largely because of his country's sluggish economy and Italians' continued opposition to the war. The premier, a media mogul who is Italy's richest man, faces a general election next year, and opinion polls suggest his conservative coalition is headed for defeat.
Defying strong domestic opposition, Berlusconi sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq to help maintain security and rebuild the country after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (search). An initial contingent of 300 troops recently returned home.
Berlusconi has said Italy would gradually withdraw groups of 300 troops until 1,000 remain, when they will all come home. Italy's defense minister has said it's "plausible" that troops would return home in the first half of 2006.
On Friday, an Italian judge began considering whether to indict Berlusconi on alleged tax fraud and other charges in a case involving his Mediaset broadcasting (search) empire — a decision that could put the premier on trial next spring as he seeks re-election.
Berlusconi denies the allegations. Last month, he was cleared of charges of false bookkeeping in a separate case.
Berlusconi's office also denied reports last week in the left-leaning daily La Repubblica alleging that the government was involved in giving the United States and Britain documents known to be forged that detailed a purported Iraqi deal to buy 500 tons of uranium yellowcake from Niger for weapons use.
The United States and Britain used the claim to show that Saddam Hussein was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.