Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, seeking to restore some shine to his tattered international image, agreed to take three detainees from Guantanamo Bay and praised President Barack Obama after a long meeting at the White House.
The two leaders talked Monday for more than two hours on topics ranging from Guantanamo to the agenda for the July summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations in L'Aquila, Italy, the Apennine mountain town that was devastated by an earthquake this spring.
Speaking at the end of the Oval Office meeting, Obama praised Berlusconi and said he was "extremely grateful for his friendship." In turn, the 72-year-old Berlusconi lauded the young U.S. president "for his deep knowledge and precision and accuracy with which he discusses all of the issues."
The meeting was an opportunity for Berlusconi to rehabilitate his reputation after a scandal over his link to an 18-year-old model — which he maintains was not improper — earned him worldwide condemnation. Striking up a public friendship with the popular U.S. president and strengthening Italy's ties to America were among his goals.
And Italy's agreement to take in three Guantanamo prisoners was good news for Obama, who has been pressing foreign allies to take some of the detainees. His efforts to have some of the prisoners released in the U.S. or sent to American prisons have been stymied by stiff opposition from members of Congress.
In the past week, the administration has made some progress — securing a key agreement with the European Union and transferring 10 detainees out of Guantanamo. One prisoner was sent to New York to stand trial, while others were transferred to Chad, Iraq, Bermuda and Saudi Arabia. The latest announcement by Italy means that there will now be 226 detainees remaining at the prison at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
The EU agreement announced Monday said European nations are ready to help the Obama administration "turn the page" on Guantanamo, and take detainees on a case-by-case basis. The announcement did not provide details on the names of the countries or the number of prisoners they might take.
Obama also was looking for common ground on recovering from the economic crisis, which will figure prominently at the G-8 summit in L'Aquila in July.
"The idea is to work out a set of rules and regulations which can prevent situations and conditions like the ones we've experienced which have led ... first to the financial crisis and then to the economic crisis that we are experiencing right now," Berlusconi told reporters after the Oval Office meeting.
The two leaders also discussed the Middle East, Afghanistan — where Italy has about 2,800 troops — and Iran.
The Italian premier later met with the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress. He also visited Washington's National Gallery of Art for a quick look at the Beffi Triptych, a 15th-century altarpiece from the National Museum of Abruzzo in L'Aquila, before departing for Italy late Monday.
The Italian government loaned the altarpiece to the Washington museum to thank the U.S. for being among the first to offer assistance to the region after the earthquake, the museum said.