By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 10/31/2005 9:04:01 AM ET 2005-10-31T14:04:01

ROME — When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi became the leader of his country soon after President Bush was elected in 2000, he made it a point of honor to be an enthusiastic loyalist of the United States.

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Berlusconi stated publicly that Italy was going to be “America’s strongest European ally,” and that support was crucial to the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq as EU powerhouses, France and Germany, openly opposed.

But now with public opinion running strongly against the war, Berlusconi — who faces an election in a few months — has declared he opposed the war from the get-go, and  tried to talk Bush out of it several times. 

These statements have brought further discomfort to an already besieged White House, and set the stage for a frosty welcome to the Oval Office on Monday for the Italian leader. 

Italian involvement in 'Niger-gate'
News that the bilateral meeting would not be followed by the customary joint news conference for visiting leaders is being interpreted by the Italian media as swift punishment for Berlusconi’s remarks. However, others say the American president is simply not ready to face media questioning after last week’s indictments.

Berlusconi’s attempt to extricate himself from the Iraq war headache is complicated by his country’s involvement in the events that led to investigation of a CIA leak. 

In January 2003 Bush stated in his State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

In fact, the documents that originally formed the basis of those now infamous “16 words” were obtained by “SISMI,” the Italian secret service.

The headlines of all the major dailies in Italy have been calling this imbroglio “Niger-gate,” and General Nicolo’ Pollaro, the head of SISMI, is under fire. 

La Repubblica, one of Italy’s biggest newspapers and a strong critic of Berlusconi, has led the way with investigative reporting revealing the involvement of shady characters operating in the underworld of Italian intelligence.

Revelations about shady underworld
These individuals supposedly used old documents stemming from the years prior to the first Gulf War — during which Saddam really was trying to build a nuclear arsenal — and forged them as new with the help of a woman who worked at the Niger Embassy in Rome. 

The woman provided government letterhead and ink-stamps to create legitimate looking papers documenting an attempt to purchase 500 tons of “yellowcake.”  She also collaborated in reporting a burglary at the embassy on New Years Eve of 2000, to give a provenance to the documents, alleged to have been stolen in the break-in.

The leader of the group of forgers, Rocco Martino, had been expelled from the Italian secret service in the 1970’s but continued to operate on the fringes of the clandestine community here.

Martino is said to have first tried to sell this forged evidence to the CIA station chief in Rome, but the American turned him down, considering them obvious fakes. Then Martino tried to sell them to the British and French intelligence with the same results.

So despite the debunking of this intelligence, in October of 2001 the Italian SISMI sent a report to the CIA in which it gave credibility to the Niger allegations, attributing them to a believable source, who would be Rocco Martino, a man they knew to be fraudulent.

Berlusconi flip-flop
The controversy now revolves around whether the Italians deliberately gave the CIA bogus evidence as real, and whether this was an effort to ingratiate themselves with the hawks in the American government who needed that evidence to bolster the invasion of Iraq.

Spy-chief Pollaro is in the hot seat for this and has been called to testify at a parliamentary hearing on the subject later this week.

The opposition here is clamoring for Berlusconi to address an open session of parliament to explain the affair, and is calling for Pollaro’s head. Meanwhile Berlusconi belatedly stated that he supports the general and believes he has always done a good job.

While the war in Iraq, and the justifications for it continue to generate all kinds of friction in both countries, the political jockeying on this side does not look good for Berlusconi. 

Where it may well be true that he tried to talk Bush out of going to war, the actions of his government at the time tell a different story, and what people most remember is how Bush’s biggest European cheerleaders back then were Spain’s José María Aznar -- kicked out of office in March 2004 — and Berlusconi.

Rather than endearing him to the majority of Italians who opposed the war, his statements are making him look like a fair-weather friend embarrassing Italy all the more in the process.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Rome Bureau Chief.

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