Islamic State, refugees top agenda for Italy PM's visit to White House

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 18, 2016 6:08 AM

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Tuesday for an official visit in which they will discuss the shared fight against Islamic State and the future of Europe which faces slow growth and a refugee crisis.

Italy has been an ally in Washington's efforts in the Middle East, sending troops to support Iraq's fight against Islamic State and becoming a founding member of an international group seeking a political solution in Syria's civil war.

Obama will host a shimmering state dinner, his last before he leaves office on Jan. 20, for Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini at the White House to cement the friendship between the countries.

The event may also provide Renzi with a boost to his flagging campaign for a referendum on constitutional reform.

Italy has made an "important contribution" in the fight against Islamic State, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters ahead of the visit. That includes training local Iraqi police to establish order in Iraqi cities and communities that have been retaken from Islamic State, Earnest said.

Italy's efforts will come into play in the next weeks and months as Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, begin an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city which Islamic State seized in 2014.

Renzi's government also works with the United States and Saudi Arabia to cut funding to the militant group. And it is a partner with Washington in supporting the UN-backed unity government in Libya, which faces its own battles with Islamic State.

On issues back home, Renzi hopes headlines from the visit will boost his campaign for a referendum in Dec. 4 on reforms that he says will streamline the lawmaking process and bring political stability to the country.

Obama wants to "put wind in the sales of someone that he sees as one of the most promising young politicians in Europe," Charles Kupchan, the president's senior director for European affairs, told reporters.

Obama backs Renzi's reform push and his support for a strong, integrated Europe after the United Kingdom voted this year to exit the European Union, Kupchan said.

Europe has faced a raft of problems in recent years that including sluggish growth, a more aggressive Russia and the migrant crisis that have helped spur populism movements across the continent.

The two leaders will focus on the central Mediterranean where migrants from North Africa and Egypt continue to head toward Italy. "There will be conversations about how to address that crisis in an orderly and humane way," Kupchan said.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)