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Foreign chiefs have funny way of offering congrats

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Italy’s famously impolitic Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday as “young, handsome and even tanned.”

Berlusconi appeared to be joking about America’s first black president at a news conference after talks with Russia’s president.

It wasn’t the only perhaps unwelcome comment about Obama’s victory.

In a rare conciliatory gesture, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a letter of congratulations. But the message posted to his official website, president.ir, also advised Obama to overhaul American policies, which Ahmadinejad said were based on “belligerency, occupation, bullying, demagoguery.”

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Berlusconi, who has a history of controversial remarks, said the relative youth of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, 43, and Obama, 47, should make it easier for Moscow and Washington to work together.

Then, smiling, he said through an interpreter, “I told the president that [Obama] has everything needed in order to reach deals with him: He’s young, handsome and even tanned.”

Medvedev did not visibly react.

Berlusconi, 72, later defended the remark, calling it “a great compliment. . . . If they have the vice of not having a sense of humor, worse for them,” the ANSA news agency reported.

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Berlusconi said the remark was meant to be “cute” and he lashed out at those who disagreed, calling them “imbeciles, of which there are too many.”

Italy’s only black lawmaker, Jean-Leonard Touadi, called the comment embarrassing.

In Iran, ordinary citizens hailed the election of the Illinois senator, who has said he would be willing to speak with Iranian leaders without preconditions and has criticized President Bush’s foreign policy.

Washington and Tehran are locked in a dispute over Iran’s drive to master sensitive nuclear technology and its support for militant groups throughout the Middle East.

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After a flowery introduction, Ahmadinejad said the world wanted the U.S. to change ways that “have harmed the reputation of America.”

He also advised Obama to reconsider American support for Israel.

“The U.S. government is expected to rethink its 60-year unjust behavior,” he said, “and opt for helping nations -- notably the innocent Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan nations -- fully regain the legitimate rights denied them.”


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