Italy PM: Never convinced military force was best option

From CNN's Rome Bureau chief Alessio Vinci

Monday, October 31, 2005 Posted: 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)

ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally on the war with Iraq, says he tried to steer U.S. President George W. Bush away from war with Iraq, saying he was "never convinced that war was the best way to succeed in bringing democracy to a country."

Berlusconi made his comments in an interview with Italian television LA7 on the eve of his trip to Washington. The two leaders met in the Oval Office on Monday.

"I was never convinced that war was the best way to succeed in bringing democracy to a country and in leading it out of a bloody dictatorship," Berlusconi said in the interview.

"On the contrary, I tried on numerous occasions to convince the American president not to go to war. I did what was within my capabilities to avoid that happening."

Berlusconi, who remained a staunch Bush supporter at a time when European leaders in France and Germany were outwardly criticizing the administration's Iraq policy, said he tried to contact leaders in the Middle East, including Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, in an effort to avoid war with Iraq.

"We did not succeed and war followed," he said.

Berlusconi is one of the few leaders who has met with Bush at both Camp David and Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

But Berlusconi's comments come at a time when he is facing a tough re-election battle next year, and his remarks are clearly aimed at domestic consumption back home where most Italians have opposed the war.

Italy did not participate in the war with Iraq -- and Berlusconi reminded the audience of that in the interview. However, Italy did send some 3,000 troops there after the United Nations voted a mandate for reconstruction. Berlusconi earlier this year said Italy should begin a gradual withdrawal.

His opponent in next year's election, Romano Prodi, has always maintained war was the wrong approach, and that he would withdraw Italian troops should he win the elections.