Berlusconi: I tried to talk Bush out of invading Iraq

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The Independent Online

Italy did not participate in the invasion but sent 3,000 "peacekeepers" to Nasiriyah soon after the fall of Saddam. The war has been unpopular. Three hundred Italian soldiers came home in the summer in the first stage of a phased withdrawal.

"I was never convinced that war was the best way to make a country democratic or to enable it to escape from a bloody dictatorship," he told Omnibus, a morning show on the private channel La Sette, to be broadcast today. "I tried numerous times to persuade the American President not to go to war. I tried to find other ways and other solutions, including through a joint initiative with [Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar] Gaddafi. But we didn't succeed and there was the military operation."

Mr Berlusconi's opponents were quick to seize on his claims as brazen lies or proof of impotence in the international arena, or both. Romano Prodi, who will challenge Mr Berlusconi for the prime ministership next April, said mockingly: "What on earth has happened? He's finally realised this was a mistaken war? And he said as much to Bush? Which goes to show that he counts for nothing, nothing, nothing!"

Marco Rizzo, a Communist MEP, said: "Berlusconi the pacifist? ... He wants the wine bottle full, the wife drunk and the money in his wallet ... Berlusconi has made his choice. His reconsideration, on the eve of the election, is a case of crocodile tears."

The controversy drew further attention to claims made in La Repubblica, the Roman daily, this week that Italian military intelligence had fabricated documentary "proof" that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium from Niger - a claim, cited by President Bush in the run-up to war, which was a vital plank in the charge that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The Italian government has denied the claims in La Repubblica, but was forced to admit that Nicolo Pollari, head of Sismi, the Italian military intelligence, met Stephen Hadley, assistant to President Bush for National Security Affairs, on 9 September 2002, shortly before the file on Niger's alleged uranium deal with Iraq was made public.

The government said Mr Pollari had also met Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Adviser, though only for 15 minutes, and discussion was restricted to "problematic scenarios in the international arena". According to La Repubblica, Mr Pollari was under pressure from Mr Berlusconi to make a powerful contribution to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.