WASHINGTON – Italy has agreed to accept three detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, President Barack Obama said Monday after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. As he looks to close the prison by early next year, Obama has been banking on foreign countries and some communities in the United States to take in some detainees who cannot go to their own countries for fear of ill-treatment.
Earlier, the European Union agreed to help the Obama administration "turn the page" on Guantanamo, which was set up under President George W. Bush. In a joint statement, the EU and the U.S. said some EU nations are ready "to assist with the reception of certain former Guantanamo detainees, on a case-by-case basis."
Berlusconi's meeting with Obama offered the Italian leader a chance to rehabilitate his international reputation after a scandal over his link to an 18-year-old model and ahead of a major summit he is hosting next month.
Obama was looking for common ground on boosting the troubled economy, and the two leaders were expected to discuss the differing approaches of the U.S. and most of Europe. The economy will feature prominently at the July summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in L'Aquila, the Apennine mountain town that was devastated by an earthquake this spring.
The two leaders also were expected to discuss the situation in the Middle East, Afghanistan — where Italy has about 2,800 troops — and Iran, the premier's office said. A Berlusconi aide, who spoke on the condition of anonimity as is customary, said the premier is considering temporarily sending more than 500 police officers, troops, police instructors and pilots to Afghanistan to bolster its contingent there in the run-up to the Aug. 20 election.
The leaders offered a striking contrast.
Obama is a young, dynamic president with a squeaky-clean family image and a reputation for self-control — hence his nickname, "No Drama Obama." He is much admired abroad, especially in Western Europe.
On the other hand, Berlusconi, a media mogul and one of Italy's richest men, has been plagued by criminal trials, conflict-of-interest accusations, tawdry scandals and headline-making gaffes that have drawn scorn from other countries, although they have done little to lower his high popularity rating at home.
Berlusconi made headlines shortly after the U.S. presidential election when he said Obama is "young, he's handsome and he even has a good tan." The Italian leader, however, has traditionally entertained very friendly relations with the U.S. and he's seeking to establish a personal relationship with the young, popular president akin to the one he had with Bush.
"Berlusconi has to show the world after all his antics of the past month-and-a-half that he is a world-class statesman and not an aging clown," said James Walston, a political science professor at the American University of Rome. "And he must be careful not to just drop bricks."
Berlusconi's trip to Washington follows suggestions from his wife, Veronica Lario, last month that the 72-year-old premier had an inappropriate relationship with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia. When she announced she was divorcing him, Lario cited Berlusconi's presence at Letizia's birthday party.
Berlusconi has denied there was anything improper about his relationship with the teenager, who he has said is the daughter of an old friend from political circles. He has said he was the victim of a slander campaign by the opposition ahead of last weekend's European Parliament elections.
While the Italian public was riveted, the scandal had no impact on Berlusconi's political career at home, as his People's Freedom Party won the European elections hands down over the center-left Democratic Party. But it played big abroad and won him condemnation in newspaper opinion pieces in many countries.