July 15, 2006

Prodi meets Bush, pledges to help in Middle East

By Robin Pomeroy

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister
Romano Prodi told President Bush on Saturday that Italy could
play a role in easing the Middle East crisis.

Prodi, who won an April election against close U.S.-ally
Silvio Berlusconi, said ahead of the G8 summit that Bush had
accepted his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq and urged Italy
to continue to support reconstruction efforts.

Bush said his meeting with "Romano," the first since Prodi
returned to power, had been very cordial. There was no sign of
tension over the Iraq war, which Prodi opposed.

"I've known him for a long time," Bush said of the former
European Commission chief at the meeting where he congratulated
Prodi for Italy's "magnificent victory" at the soccer World

The two leaders avoided talking about the alleged CIA
kidnap of a suspected terrorist in Italy in 2003, a raging
controversy in Italy which led to the arrest of the deputy head
of the intelligence service and arrest warrants for 26 U.S.

"We did not discuss bilateral issues," Prodi said.

Instead, Prodi, whose centre-left government includes
communists, pacifists and greens, used the meeting to promote
Italy as a potentially influential player in the Middle East.

In the last two days Prodi has telephoned leaders or
officials in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Iran. Immediately after
the meeting with Bush, he made a second phone call to Syria's
President Bashar al-Assad.

"No one can be a mediator," Prodi told reporters. "In these
cases, the most serious term is 'facilitator'."

Prodi gave few details of his conversations, but said he
urged Assad to help clear "bureaucratic" hurdles that were
preventing Europeans trying to flee Lebanon across the Syrian

Israel has launched a fierce bombardment of Lebanon,
killing dozens of civilians, in response to the capture of two
soldiers by Hizbollah militants and rocket assaults on the
north of the Jewish state by the Islamic group.

The United States, Israel's chief ally, has asked it to
avoid civilian casualties but not asked it to halt its

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan)