Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has set off a fresh political storm by portraying former Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a benevolent leader with no blood on his hands.
Italy's Jewish community expressed outrage at the comments and opposition centre-left parties demanded an apology.
In an interview published today, Berlusconi told two British journalists that there was no comparison between deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Mussolini, who led Italy to disastrous defeat in World War Two alongside Adolf Hitler.
When asked by the Spectator magazine and Italy's La Voce di Romagna newspaper if Mussolini was "benign", Berlusconi replied: "Yes".
He went on to say: "Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday in (internal) confinement."
Few historians would agree with Berlusconi's assessment.
One Mussolini biographer, Richard Bosworth, estimates at least one million people died as a result of his 20-year rule, with "atrocious massacres of Libyans, Ethiopians, inhabitants of the ex-Yugoslavia and, after 1943, thousands of Italian Jews".
Mussolini introduced Italy's first anti-Semitic laws in 1938, opening the way for the eventual deportation of around 7,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Some 5,910 died.
"Berlusconi's comments cause me profound pain," Amos Luzzatto, the President of the union of Italian Jewish communities, told journalists.
Pierluigi Castagnetti, parliamentary party leader of the centre-left Margherita party, said the prime minister's remarks were "incredible and shocking".
The row follows a long line of controversies sparked by the outspoken Berlusconi, the acting president of the European Union until the end of the year.
Earlier this summer he created a diplomatic storm when he compared a German lawmaker in the European parliament to a Nazi concentration camp guard. Last week he was quoted as saying that Italy's magistrates were "mentally disturbed".
He told reporters this week that he only said what other people thought, even if it wasn't politically correct: "I like provoking reactions...I'll continue to be true to myself".