ROME (AFP) - Italy's gaffe-prone former premier Silvio Berlusconi sparked outrage on Sunday with remarks praising wartime dictator Benito Mussolini despite Il Duce's persecution of Jews and allowing thousands to be deported to Auschwitz.
"The racial laws were the worst mistake of a leader, Mussolini, who however did good things in so many other areas," Mr Berlusconi, who is angling for a return to politics in elections next month, said on the sidelines of a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan.
Starting in 1938, Mussolini promulgated decrees known collectively as racial laws that barred Jews from the civil service, the armed forces and the National Fascist Party. The laws also banned intermarriage.
Mussolini's Italy participated in the deportation of Jews to the Auschwitz death camp, and an estimated 7,500 are estimated to have been victims of the Holocaust. Italy "does not have the same responsibilities as Germany," said Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon known for ill-considered outbursts.
On Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had "an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of (the Nazis)".
The head of Italy's Jewish community, Renzo Gattegna, hit out at Berlusconi's remarks, saying they were "not only superficial and inopportune, but also... devoid of any moral meaning or historical foundation."
Gattegna, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, added: "The persecution and the racist anti-Semitic laws of Italy originated well before the war and were applied with full autonomy under the... fascist regime, later an ally and willing and conscious accomplice of Nazi Germany."
He said the remarks showed "the extent to which Italy still has trouble seriously accepting its own history and its own responsibilities".
Centre-left politicians also voiced outrage over Mr Berlusconi's comments.
"Berlusconi's words are a disgrace and an insult to history and memory. He should apologise to the Italian people today," Dario Francheschini, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, said in a Twitter message.
His party is tipped to win the elections set for Feb 24-25.
Left-wing MEP Debora Serracchiani said in a statement: "It is simply disgusting that even on Remembrance Day Berlusconi goes about rehabilitating the actions of the dictator who dragged Italy into the Second World War." Antonio Di Petro, head of the small anti-corruption Italy of Values party, dismissed Mr Berlusconi as "nothing more than a caricature" of Mussolini.
The flamboyant, scandal-plagued 76-year-old, who has had three stints as prime minister, heads the centre-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) but has not decided whether to seek a fourth term or settle for a cabinet post if the party wins in February.
The head of the PDL's parliamentary group, Fabrizio Cicchitto, came to Berlusconi's defence, saying: "The fascist dictatorship never attained the horror of that of the Nazis or the Russians." He said the left's reactions were politically motivated and that "Berlusconi was obviously talking about (Mussolini's) social aid policies and support for families."
Mr Berlusconi's coalition ally, the populist Northern League party, declined to be drawn into the debate. "We are in an election campaign, I understand the controversy, but I do not want to feed it," said the League's head Roberto Maroni.
Mr Berlusconi himself sought to clarify his comments later on Sunday. "My historical analyses have always been based on the condemnation of dictatorships," he said in a statement, noting that he was "a historical friend of Israel."
Mr Berlusconi's long history of gaffes includes an earlier comment about Il Duce: "Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile," he told an Italian magazine in 2003.