Italy's leader defends remark about 'tanned' Obama

President Bush, right, toasts with the Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, left, during an Official Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- Italy's Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Friday defended his description of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as "young, handsome and even tanned," and said critics who saw the remark as racist were "imbeciles."

Berlusconi was visibly annoyed when reporters questioned him after a European Union summit in Brussels about the possibility of political fallout from comments he made Thursday while in Moscow about America's first black president.

The Italian leader, known for his impolitic remarks, appeared to have been joking Thursday when he said Obama "has everything needed in order to reach deals with him: he's young, handsome and even tanned."

On Friday, Berlusconi told reporters that the remark was meant to be complimentary and "cute," and he called those who disagreed "imbeciles, of which there are too many."

When pressed about whether the comment could hurt Rome's relations with Washington, Berlusconi suggested the reporter asking the question should be added to the list of "imbeciles." He and his aides then abruptly left the news conference.

Italy's only black lawmaker, Jean-Leonard Touadi, said Thursday he was "deeply disappointed" that Berlusconi's first public comments about such a historic event was "to say Obama is sun tanned." But he said he didn't think Berlusconi was racist.

Berlusconi, 72, once compared a German lawmaker to a Nazi camp guard, asserted after the Sept. 11 terror attacks that Western civilization was superior to Islam and claimed more recently that the new Spanish government had too many women.

The Italian premier had forged a close friendship with outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush.

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