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Bush, Berlusconi Discuss Iraq During White House Meeting - 2004-05-19

President Bush has met at the White House with a key U.S. ally on Iraq: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Their talks centered on the twin issues of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi security.

Although violence continues in Iraq, the focus at the White House was on the future.

President Bush told reporters they reviewed a strategy for a free Iraq.

He said it involves a full transfer of sovereignty accompanied by a United Nations Security Council resolution. "We also talked about the need to make sure there is a security force to help the Iraqis move toward elections," he said.

The president acknowledged the security situation is tough now and may get worse after an interim Iraqi government takes office on June 30. "It will be tough work after sovereignty is transferred because there will still be people there trying to derail the election process," he said.

Mr. Bush praised Italy's contribution to coalition efforts. Prime Minister Berlusconi is under pressure at home to pull out some or all of the 27-hundred Italian soldiers in Iraq. But he made no mention of even a partial withdrawal at the White House.

Instead, Mr. Berlusconi stressed his support for the transfer of power, calling the president's plan "convincing." He said he agreed with Mr. Bush that the leaders of an Iraqi interim government could be announced within a few weeks. And he said the person chosen as interim president should be invited to United Nations headquarters as soon as possible to meet with the Security Council and members of the coalition.

He said such a meeting would give the interim government international legitimacy, and would boost the morale of the Iraqi people.

The Italian leader went on to mention a possible conference before elections are held in Iraq early next year.

Prime Minister Belusconi warned that if the international community gives up on Iraq before democracy takes hold, the country will descend into chaos and civil war. He said an authoritarian regime could take hold once again, and Iraq could become an exporter of terror.