Italy's 'Povero Cristo'

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 69, is one of the Bush administration's most faithful--and flamboyant--friends in Europe. The self-made billionaire and media magnate supports a close transatlantic alliance and sent thousands of Italian troops to Iraq as part of the post-invasion Coalition in 2003. But as he visits Washington this week, Berlusconi is under pressure. Running for re-election on April 9, he's trailing in the polls. A member of his cabinet was just forced to resign after taunting Muslims with a Muhammad-cartoon T shirt, provoking anti-Italian riots that cost at least 14 lives in Libya. Last week Berlusconi spoke with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey, Jacopo Barigazzi and Barbie Nadeau. Excerpts:

It's not true. I attended a fund-raising dinner where there were more than 400 people. I greeted everybody, shaking hands, taking pictures. I didn't manage to eat anything. I signed autographs. And then they wanted me to give a speech. So I went like this [ he slumps in his chair ] and said, "You're asking a 'povero Cristo' to give a speech." You see, we say in Italian "poor Christ" when we mean "poor fellow." But I stopped myself. I smiled. I said, " Mamma mia, now they're going to say that I compare myself to Jesus Christ!"

[ Laughs. ] Absolutely the contrary. We were in Sardinia, a meeting of party officials. No journalists. At the end a priest came to me. He says, "Bless you." And he asked, "Will you make all the necessary sacrifices to win?" And I told him, "You're not asking me to take a vow of chastity until the end of the elections?" And he said, "No, I'm not asking you to do that!" And then somebody at the meeting probably said something outside.

You have to understand that in Italy the media and the press have been taken over by the left. Even at my television networks, journalists want to prove they are independent. There is only one brave journalist, the director of the smallest of my three networks, who comes to my defense. All the others are against me.

I wouldn't put it this way. I'm part of Europe, but the West is one, and has to remain one, above all at a moment when we are facing the new totalitarianism that is international terrorism. Now we are back to a situation where Europe is close to the United States, and it is my belief that it is our responsibility to spread democracy all over the world.

Democracy is not enough, but I'm optimistic. The important thing is for the Western democracies to be united when they tackle these problems. We are doing this with both Iran and the Palestinian Authority, and there are initiatives by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I'd like to explain what he's trying to do vis-a-vis Hamas. None of us [in the United States or the EU] can negotiate with Hamas because we included it on the black list of terrorist organizations, and you do not negotiate with terrorists. But [Russia] did not do this. I think this approach can be the road to starting negotiations. I also rely on the fact that the Hamas leaders now understand they have government responsibilities.

I asked him to resign, and he did.

I think so. I discussed that with President Bush and [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. And I do believe--it's just my personal opinion--that it would be worthwhile for them to have a timetable. The Iraqi government will soon be able to keep order in the country on its terms.

That might be the left's intention, and it speaks volumes about how "democratic" they are... [Since 1994] I have been completely acquitted in all trials, because I did not commit any crime. During the six years I was in the opposition, 92 times they tried to [use the courts]... I was involved in almost 2,000 hearings. It is the biggest persecution of a politician ever carried out in any democracy in history.