Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has taken his claim that he is being persecuted by leftist judges to the G-8 summit, telling a clearly perplexed President Barack Obama that in Italy they represent "almost a dictatorship."
His comments carried on Italian TV news broadcasts from Deauville, France, set off a barrage of criticism Friday from Italian magistrates and his political opponents.
Italians are used to such statements from Berlusconi, but Obama seemed surprised when he was buttonholed by the Italian premier.
"We have presented a justice reform that is fundamental to us. In Italy, we have almost a dictatorship of leftist judges," microphones picked up Berlusconi telling Obama, through an interpreter.
Berlusconi is currently a defendant in four cases, three related to his business interests and one on charges of paying for sex with an underage Moroccan prostitute. He denies wrongdoing.
His remarks stirred mockery, embarrassment and scorn at home Friday.
"The prime minister has clearly lost his head," said left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper in a front page editorial.
Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the largest opposition party, quipped that Berlusconi was probably asking Obama for NATO military action against the judges.
The national magistrates association was incensed by the remarks. "It is very serious that ... a fundamental state institution should be denigrated in front of one of the most powerful heads of state in the world," said the association's leader Luca Palamara.
Another opposition leader, Nichi Vendola, said Berlusconi "can find nothing better to do than bother world leaders with his obsessions — the judges and the left."
The controversy comes two days before local elections on Sunday and Monday where Berlusconi risks suffering a humiliating defeat that could finally mark a decline in his political dominance of Italy.
Berlusconi says left-wing judges have tried to pervert democracy by bringing 31 cases against him in 17 years, of which 24 have been shelved or resulted in his acquittal.
Before the first round of local elections on May 15-16, Berlusconi filled the air waves with denunciations of prosecuting magistrates.
But since suffering a major setback in the vote, when his center-right mayor trailed the leftwing candidate in his stronghold of Milan, Berlusconi has kept quiet about the magistrates, evidently realizing even his own supporters were being turned off by his legal woes.
There are widespread expectations that the left will win a run-off in Milan this weekend, in what would be a major defeat for Berlusconi and could lead to calls for him to be dumped by the center-right.
The 74-year-old billionaire media magnate, who has dominated politics as the hero of conservative voters since first being elected in 1994, is notorious for diplomatic gaffes.
Shortly after becoming prime minister for the third time in 2008 he risked a diplomatic incident with the United States when he called newly-elected Obama "suntanned".
He held two fingers in an obscene gesture behind a Spanish minister's head in an EU summit photograph and caused a minor diplomatic incident by suggesting he had seduced Finnish President Tarja Halonen to persuade her to let Italy host a new EU food safety agency.