Silvio Berlusconi visits U.S.: he seeks support in elections?

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi travels to the United States next week for a visit that comes before national elections and is seen by many here as U.S. President George W. Bush's reward to a loyal ally. Berlusconi's two-day visit will include a meeting with Bush on Tuesday and an address to a joint session of Congress. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to receive an award in New York for promoting freedom and democracy.

"Bush's electoral gift to his 'pal Silvio,"' read the headline in Thursday's top Italian daily Corriere della Sera. Berlusconi, a conservative, faces a tough battle in the April 9-10 election, which pits him against leftist Romano Prodi, a former European Commission president and former premier who defeated Berlusconi in 1996.

The economy is foundering, and Berlusconi's support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular in Italy . Polls published in the past months have consistently shown a lead for the center-left opposition, even though recent ones registered a narrowing gap. At least one poll commissioned by the premier showed both coalitions in a statistical dead heat, and Berlusconi has repeatedly expressed confidence he would win re-election.

Berlusconi has often depicted himself as respected world leader who enjoys close relationship, and even friendship, with powerful men and women across the globe, including Bush. The high-profile visit might help him strengthen this image.

"Undoubtedly, it's a show of confidence and strategic closeness from the United States and from Bush," said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome . "It's a very positive event for Berlusconi but also for Italy ," he said, stressing that Berlusconi had been successful in raising his country's profile on the world stage.

Berlusconi, a cruise ship singer in his youth and the country's richest man, took power in 2001 and is Italy 's longest-serving postwar premier, partly a testament to his broad populist appeal. He briefly resigned to form a new government in April following turmoil within his conservative coalition. The premier defied domestic opposition when he sent about 3,000 troops to help reconstructing Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a move that positioned him as a firm U.S. ally.

The troops are gradually withdrawing and should complete their pullout by the end of the year, although Berlusconi has stressed that they would only be pulled out in consultation with the Iraqi government and coalition allies. Berlusconi's show of loyalty to the United States appears to be earning him kudos from Washington .

In announcing Berlusconi's visit earlier this week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan described Italy as one of the United States ' closest allies. McClellan said Bush appreciated Berlusconi's "deep commitment to spreading freedom and democracy around the world." The two leaders are expected to discuss trans-Atlantic issues, including assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan , reports the AP.

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