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In EU debut, Italian leader insults German

It wasn't the best way to start a new job.

Already considered a charlatan by his critics, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi drew thunderous rebukes Wednesday when he addressed the European Parliament and promptly insulted a German lawmaker by suggesting he play a role in a movie about a Nazi concentration camp.

The remark was another bit of messy political soap opera in Berlusconi's troubled quest to gain respect in a Europe that often compares him to a finely tailored Mafia don who bankrolled his way into power. Berlusconi's unfortunate choice of words _ he said it was meant as a joke _ came in Strasbourg, France.

Italy assumed the rotating presidency Tuesday, one day after a Milan court suspended Berlusconi's bribery trial. Last week, the Italian Parliament, which is controlled by Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, passed an immunity law that protects him from prosecution while he is in office.

As he rose to deliver his speech, Berlusconi ignored lawmakers from the Green Party holding placards that read, "The Law Is Equal for All," and "No Godfather for Europe."

He spoke of the need for Europe to join the United States in the push for peace in the Middle East, calling on the EU to shake off "stagnation and fatigue" and take its place on the world stage.

But the debate after the speech focused on Berlusconi's fitness to lead Europe. One lawmaker compared him to Attila the Hun. Berlusconi's irritation was becoming visible when Martin Shultz, a Social Democrat from Germany, took the floor and raised a question about the Italian's conflicts of interest.

Berlusconi, speaking Italian, snapped: "Mr. Schulz, I know there is a producer in Italy who is making a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I will suggest you for the role of kapo. You'd be perfect."

Kapo is a German word, usually associated with Nazi concentration camps, for a privileged prisoner who guards other prisoners. Among Italians, the word is commonly understood to mean a camp commander.

The remark provoked outrage around the 626-seat EU assembly, and Berlusconi was drowned out by jeering, shouting and banging of desks.

Parliament President Pat Cox called on Berlusconi to withdraw his comment. When he refused, Cox closed the debate. Cox, who is Irish, said the comments caused "a sense of great offense."

"My joke wasn't meant to be offensive," Berlusconi said at a news conference after the session, adding that Schulz's tone and gestures prompted him to make the statement. "It was an ironic joke, perhaps the translation wasn't done in an ironic sense."

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Chicago Tribune was used in this report.