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ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's latest international gaffe, when he complained to a bemused President Barack Obama about his problems with magistrates, was met with mockery, embarrassment and scorn at home on Friday.
Obama looked baffled when television cameras picked up the Italian prime minister buttonholing him at a Group of Eight meeting in France and treating him to one of his trade mark tirades about magistrates who have hauled him into court for four concurrent trials.
Microphones picked up Berlusconi telling Obama during a pause in the G8 meeting: "We have presented a justice reform that is fundamental to us. In Italy we have almost a dictatorship of leftist judges."
The incident prompted wide negative press coverage only two days before local elections on Sunday and Monday where Berlusconi risks suffering a humiliating defeat that could finally mark a decline in his political dominance of Italy.
"The prime minister has clearly lost his head," said left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper in a front page editorial.
Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the largest opposition party, quipped that Berlusconi was probably asking Obama for NATO military action against the judges.
The national magistrates association was incensed by the remarks. "It is very serious that...a fundamental state institution should be denigrated in front of one of the most powerful heads of state in the world," said the association's leader Luca Palamara.
Another opposition leader, Nichi Vendola, said Berlusconi "can find nothing better to do than bother world leaders with his obsessions--the judges and the left."
Berlusconi was unrepentant about the furor on Friday, telling reporters at the end of the G8 meeting that he would not leave politics until he had passed sweeping judicial reforms and ended the "intolerable interference" of public prosecutors.
He rejected suggestions he had damaged the center-right election campaign with his outburst or embarrassed the country.
"It is my institutional duty to explain the Italian situation, including cases which could undermine the credibility of the country's leader," he told a news conference.
Berlusconi says left-wing judges have tried to pervert democracy by bringing 31 cases against him in 17 years, of which 24 have been shelved or resulted in his acquittal.
Before the first round of local elections on May 15-16 Berlusconi filled the airwaves with denunciations of prosecuting magistrates who have put him on trial in three current corruption cases and one where he is accused of paying an underage Moroccan prostitute.
But since suffering a major setback in the vote, when his center-right mayor trailed the leftwing candidate in his stronghold of Milan, Berlusconi had kept quiet about the magistrates, evidently realizing even his own supporters were being turned off by his legal woes.
There are widespread expectations that the left will win a run-off in Milan this weekend, in what would be a major defeat for Berlusconi and could lead to calls for him to be dumped by the center-right.
The 74-year-old billionaire media magnate, who has dominated politics as the hero of conservative voters since first being elected in 1994, is notorious for diplomatic gaffes.
Shortly after becoming prime minister for the third time in 2008 he risked a diplomatic incident with the United States when he called newly-elected Obama "suntanned."
Editing by Ralph Boulton