George Bush yesterday praised Silvio Berlusconi as "a strong partner in peace" during a meeting at the White House, but the two leaders avoided any public discussion of Italy's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq or claims by the Italian prime minister that he repeatedly tried to talk the US president out of an invasion.
In a sign of potentially strained relations, the two men - who were the closest of allies in the run-up to the Iraq war - refused to take reporters' questions.
Mr Berlusconi had previously said he planned to raise the issue of Italian troop withdrawal but, in a statement delivered after their meeting, he merely praised Mr Bush for being "far-sighted" during a sensitive moment in world history. He added that it was becoming "a habit for me to come to pay homage to the president in the Oval Office".
"It is for us a reason of pride to be side by side with our American ally in broadening the borders of democracy and freedom in the world and in order to pursue peace, which is something we all aspire to," he said through a translator.
In an interview with Italian television, shown last night, Mr Berlusconi said he had tried on several occasions to convince Mr Bush not to wage 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 said.
A White House official, asked if the US government felt Mr Berlusconi's comments were aimed at addressing the concerns of an increasingly hostile Italian electorate, told the Guardian: "I think you might be on to something."
Mr Berlusconi has seen his popularity nosedive in recent months as a result of the country's sluggish economy and Italians' continued opposition to the Iraq war. Opinion polls suggest his conservative coalition is headed for defeat on April 9, the date Mr Berlusconi has chosen for the country to vote for its next government.
Although not involved in the invasion, Italy sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein - the largest foreign contingent after the US and Britain. An initial contingent of 300 troops recently returned home, and more are expected to follow soon. Italy's defence minister has said it is "plausible" that all the troops will be withdrawn in the first half of 2006.
In London, Tony Blair, speaking after talks with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, said Britain would withdraw its troops only when the insurgent attacks had been halted. "If the violence stopped today, the multinational force could leave tomorrow. It is the violence that keeps us, in order to support the political process."
Relations between the US and Italy came under further strain when an Italian intelligence officer was shot dead by American troops while on a hostage rescue mission.
Meanwhile, there was more bad news from Iraq yesterday with the US military announcing the deaths of seven soldiers in separate attacks, raising the death toll for October to more than 90, the highest monthly total since January. The latest fatalities bring to 2,025 the number of US service members killed since the start of the war in March 2003.
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