ROME -- For years, he has been one of President Bush's most loyal supporters in Europe, a leader who steadfastly backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and one of the few on the continent to send troops to help out.
So it came as something of a surprise this weekend when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi revealed his reservations about the war, on the eve of a visit to Washington, no less.
"I tried repeatedly to convince the American president not to go to war," Berlusconi told an interviewer with the La7 television channel. "I was never convinced that war was the best system to achieve democracy in a country that had to emerge from a bloody dictatorship. I maintained that military action should be avoided."
The interview will be broadcast tomorrow, the day the prime minister arrives at the White House, and excerpts were reported yesterday by Italian news agencies.
Berlusconi has made numerous trips to the U.S. capital and probably has received more Bush hospitality than any European leader except British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Facing a tough re-election early next year, Berlusconi might be attempting to distance himself from Bush, who lately has been besieged by an onslaught of crises that have eroded public support.
Berlusconi, too, has seen his support sag, in part because of the unpopular war in Iraq as well as worsening economic malaise.
The right-wing coalition of parties that Berlusconi heads is divided, while the normally fractured left seems to be coalescing behind a single candidate, former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who is leading in polls and poses a formidable challenge to Berlusconi's rule.
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.