President George W. Bush praised Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi as "a strong partner in peace" Monday, but the two leaders avoided any public discussion of Italy's plan to pull its troops out of Iraq. "Relations between the United States and Italy are strong," Bush said during an Oval Office meeting with the Italian leader, one of the United States' strongest supporters in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He thanked Berlusconi for his commitment to freedom for people in Afghanistan and Iraq, where US-led invasions brought down governments after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States. Neither leader took reporters' questions after their statements. Both are experiencing political difficulties. Later, Italian news agencies quoted Berlusconi as saying no Italian troops would be pulled out of Iraq before the end of the year because the December 15 parliamentary elections are expected to engender "very strong tensions." He said US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Antonio Martino, Italy's defense minister, would meet in January in Washington to discuss the timing of the withdrawals. Berlusconi said the 3,000 Italian troops sent to Iraq would be withdrawn in contingents of 300 troops. Some 300 already have returned to Italy.