ROME — If there was any doubt about which current European leader is closest to President Bush, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi erased it on Thursday.
Appearing with Bush at a news conference held in a breathtaking Renaissance villa overlooking the Eternal City, the garrulous Berlusconi called Bush a "personal friend," and a "very unique person" and praised his "vision" and "courage."
Berlusconi also offered to help in efforts to stop Iran from pursuing a uranium enrichment program and, Bush said, cleared the way for Italian troops in Afghanistan to operate in areas with the heaviest fighting.
Berlusconi even made the unusual suggestion that Bush could be a visiting professor at a new Italian school to be called "The University of Liberal Thinking."
Bush did not respond to that idea, but returned the kind words. "We're good friends, and I appreciate that very much," he said.
Bush's visit with Berlusconi was part of his third stop on an eight-day farewell European trip, which will continue this morning with his third visit with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Bush met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in the week and will also see French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The Europeans in the group have been part of a notable warming in the transatlantic relationship during Bush's second term, a trend Bush is expected to cite in a speech scheduled for tonight in Paris.
Bush's personal image remains dismal in Western Europe, though. Those expressing confidence in him ranged from 16 percent in Britain to 8 percent in Spain, according to a global Pew Research Center poll released Thursday. The sour feelings were expressed on the streets of Rome as Bush arrived Wednesday, though demonstrators showed up in much smaller numbers than during the president's previous visits.
Berlusconi, the media baron and financier who was returned to office in May after losing power in 2006, has been one of Bush's staunchest allies on the world stage. He was the first European leader to back the Iraq war and has unabashedly stood by a U.S. president who has remained consistently unpopular among the Italian public.
Bush said Berlusconi had assured him that Italy had removed "caveats" that had restricted the use of Italian troops in the areas of Afghanistan with the heaviest fighting against the Taliban. Italy's previous resistance to sending any of its 2,700 troops in Afghanistan to those areas has prompted complaints from NATO and the United States.
Berlusconi also repeated his offer to join a six-nation group that is conducting talks with Iran, noting Italy's large commercial ties with that country.
Bush said only that he "would seriously consider it." Other nations in the group, notably Germany, appear cool to the idea.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.