The British Foreign Office was thrown into turmoil yesterday after the British ambassador to Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, described President Bush as "the best recruiting sergeant ever for al-Qaida." His comment, made at a closed conference of about 100 British and Italian diplomats, politicians and journalists in the Tuscany region of Italy, was leaked to an Italian newspaper, provoking embarrassment in London.
According to one of those present, Sir Ivor had been taking part in a discussion on which candidate Europeans would back if they had a vote in the U.S. election. The ambassador said they would vote for Kerry but some people would want Bush, not least al-Qaida.
"If anyone is ready to celebrate the eventual reelection of Bush, it's al-Qaida -- whereas it is clear that the Palestinians hope that a Kerry victory will unblock the situation," he said.
The Foreign Office, which warned before the war that Iraq could become a breeding ground for al-Qaida, did not deny yesterday that Sir Ivor made the remarks. "We are not making any comment other than the fact they do not represent government policy," a spokesman said.
In a statement Monday night, Sir Ivor said: "These statements as reported do not reflect my personal views." The Foreign Office is taking a soft line because Sir Ivor had not intended his comments to be made public and there was a breach of Chatham House rules, meaning the conference had been held on condition that all comments would be kept off the record.
The Foreign Office minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, and European Union commissioners Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten were among those at the conference. MacShane, who left before the remarks were made, yesterday praised Sir Ivor as "an effective advocate of good relations between Britain and Italy."
The report of the conference came from Corriere della Sera's Monica Guerzoni, who covered the meeting from outside. A delegate who attended the meeting said that the ambassador's comments had come in response to a question using the same expression, "the best recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida," from a British delegate.
Sir Ivor, born in 1946 in Liverpool, has been ambassador in Rome for just over a year. He represented Britain in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and was criticized by the U.S. then for being overfriendly with Slobodan Milosevic.