AFP - Italy's scandal-plagued Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will hold his first formal meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday with the upcoming Group of Eight summit high on the agenda.
Berlusconi hopes the much sought-after meeting will burnish his image after a wave of scandals at home, perceived gaffes abroad, and an embarrassing anti-American rant by Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
In a fiery speech on Thursday, Kadhafi likened the United States to Al-Qaeda.
Recalling the 1986 US bombing of Libya, he asked: "What's the difference between the US attack on our homes and the terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda?"
The eccentric north African leader also slammed the United States for allowing Iraq to turn into a magnet for Al-Qaeda militants.
The remarks left Italian officials scrambling to confirm Rome's close ties with Washington, a given during the presidency of George W. Bush with whom Berlusconi was on exceedingly friendly terms.
"Just because we play host to Moamer Kadhafi doesn't mean we agree with everything he says," said a clearly embarrassed Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
A Berlusconi aide said the flap would not cloud the White House meeting.
"There's nothing that suggests irritation" in Washington, diplomatic advisor Bruno Archi told reporters.
Berlusconi, heading for divorce over his links to a teenaged aspiring model and implicated in a corruption scandal, hopes the meeting with Obama will refocus attention on affairs of state.
A White House statement said the US leader "looks forward to discussing preparations for the G8 summit ... and consulting with the prime minister on a broad range of strategic issues of mutual concern."
Berlusconi, 72, told Italian television that he and Obama would "discuss new global financial and economic regulations" ahead of the meeting of the G8, the club of rich nations grouping the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.
Some 20 other countries have been invited to the meeting, including China, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Italy will host the G8 summit July 8-10 in L'Aquila, the city that was devastated by an earthquake in April which claimed 299 lives.
Berlusconi made the surprise decision to switch the venue to L'Aquila from the Sardinian island of La Madallena to "show solidarity" with the victims of the disaster and save money.
The new venue is a sprawling military academy where Obama and other world leaders will stay in drab grey barracks for married cadets.
In Washington, Obama and Berlusconi may also discuss a request by the United States for Italy to take two Tunisian former detainees of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi's handlers may be hoping he will not add to two well-catalogued gaffes involving Obama.
At an April Group of 20 summit in London, the ebullient Italian leader played the clown during the group photo session, calling out loudly for Obama, causing Queen Elizabeth II to wonder out loud, "why does he have to shout?"
And shortly after Obama's election in November, Berlusconi insists he was making an "affectionate" remark when he described the first black US president as "young, handsome and tanned".
Italian pollster Nando Pagnoncelli says that what are perceived as gaffes often have populist appeal back home, especially among Berlusconi's right-wing constituents.