US President George W Bush on Thursday
thanked Italy for plans to extend its military role in Afghanistan, and said
the Rome government's bid to join the "5 plus 1" nuclear negotiation
team on Iran is being "seriously considered".
Bush made the remarks at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, the latest leg of the US president's farewell trip to Europe.
Praising Italy for its commitment to international peace-keeping missions, including Kosovo and Lebanon, Bush said he welcomed Berlusconi's efforts to ensure that "the caveats that have restricted your forces in Afghanistan have been removed."
Recently Italy had indicated it planned to make the deployment of its 2,360 troops in Afghanistan's relatively tranquil northern areas more "flexible," so that they can be moved to the country's southern hotspots, if requested by NATO.
Bush also said he had discussed with Berlusconi Italy's request to join the so-called 5-plus-1 team which is attempting to persuade Iran to drop its uranium enrichment plans.
"And I told Silvio I'd seriously consider it," Bush said, replying to a reporter's question.
"I also made it clear, however, that all of us, 5 plus 1 or not, need to be sending the same message to the Iranians, which is: Verifiably suspend your enrichment programme or else you will face further sanctions and further isolation," he added.
Berlusconi said he believed Italy, as Iran's largest trading partner in Europe, could contribute to the diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear controversy, which the team, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, France, Britain, the United States and China - and Germany, are involved in.
"Our offer is based on the fact that we know Iran very well from the inside. We have some leading companies that are operating in these countries, and therefore we think that this would be very useful in helping President Bush and (Russian Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin to pursue the strategy that they've determined for that country," Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi also used Thursday's news conference as a opportunity to publicly thank Bush "a personal friend of mine and a great friend of Italy" for what the Italian premier said were the US president's efforts to "safeguard democracy and freedom."
"You're right, we're good friends, and I appreciate that very much. I also have enjoyed coming to Rome. I always leave with a little extra culture - and a little fatter," Bush said.
Earlier Thursday Bush also met Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
The US president flew in to Rome on Wednesday from Berlin - the previous leg of his last European tour as president which includes Slovenia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Northern Ireland.
On Friday Bush was scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican before departing for Paris, dpa reported.