Bush to Press Berlusconi on Iran and Afghanistan

ROME(Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush will ask Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday to take a tougher stand on Iran's nuclear programme and respond to U.S. calls for NATO troops to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. 

Bush got a cool reception in Italy, with about 2,000 people protesting on Wednesday and a handful chanting "Bush, go home" when he visited Rome's American Academy on Thursday. 

Complaining at "misinformation and propaganda" about the United States, he told local entrepreneurs: "The best diplomacy for America, particularly among young folks, is to welcome you to our country." 

On the third stop of a farewell tour of Europe, Bush can expect a warmer welcome from his old ally Berlusconi -- back for a third term as Italy's premier -- when they meet at 1600 GMT. 

Bush will look for signs that Berlusconi, who backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, will align Italy closer with Washington. But his leverage to isolate Iran and get more troops for Afghanistan is limited in Europe, where he is reviled for the Iraq war, and where people are looking beyond November's U.S. election. 

Bush's bid to ratchet up pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme is expected to be high on the agenda with Berlusconi. 

The West fears Iran's uranium enrichment activities could be used to build a nuclear bomb. Iran says its programme is only for power generation to meet the needs of its growing economy. 

Bush is stressing diplomacy but said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday "all options are on the table". Asked about the military option by French television, he said: "Yes, it's still there." 


U.S.and European leaders must "continue to send that message to the Iranian leadership that you're isolated, you'll continue to get pressured unless you verifiably suspend your enrichment programme", Bush said. 

In Iran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Bush's "unilateral and obstinate approach ... does not change the reality of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities". 

"By such false comments, Bush cannot make up for his previous mistakes in the short period of time remaining of his presidency," Mohammad Ali Hosseini told IRNA news agency. 

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, at a meeting of the Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Rome, said Bush's stance on Iran was "counter-productive" and was "more likely to strengthen ranks in Iran ... " 

Italyis one of Iran's top foreign investors and Washington had urged Berlusconi's centre-left predecessor to be tougher on Italian companies doing business in Iran, to little avail. 

The new foreign minister, Franco Frattini, signals a harder line, saying sanctions should be revived if Tehran rejected a revised incentives package it would soon be offered. 

But Italian papers said Bush may not be able to reward Italy with a place on the "5 plus 1" group of powers dealing with Iran -- five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. 

Bush also wants a firmer commitment from Italy to the war effort in Afghanistan and has pressed NATO allies, with limited success, to increase troop levels and lift bans on deployment of forces to places where fighting is fiercest. 

Italyhas 2,700 troops in Afghanistan but like France, Spain and Germany has been reluctant to send them to the more volatile south and east, causing tension with NATO allies and Washington. 

Berlusconi's new government says it favours helping NATO by agreeing to "limited" deployment to combat zones. 

Bush will visit the Vatican on Friday before travelling to Paris, London and Northern Ireland.

Source: Turkish Weekly (site)