Italy's former premier Silvio Berlusconi caused anger Sunday with remarks praising dictator Benito Mussolini despite the fact that he persecuted Jews and allowed 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," said Berlusconi, on the sidelines of a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan. Italy "does not have the same responsibilities as Germany," he added.

Reporting the statement, AFP noted that from 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 killed in the Holocaust.

The head of Italy's Jewish community, Renzo Gattegna, said that Berlusconi's remarks were "not only superficial and inopportune, but also... devoid of any moral meaning or historical foundation." Gattegna 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".

"Berlusconi's words are a disgrace and an insult to history and memory. He should apologize to the Italian people today," Dario Francheschini, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, said in a Twitter message.

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."

The 76-year-old Berlusconi heads the center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) that is also participating in elections February.

The head of the PDL's parliamentary group, Fabrizio Cicchitto, came to Berlusconi's defense, saying: "The fascist dictatorship never attained the horror of that of the Nazis or the Russians."

Berlusconi himself sought to mitigate the uproar he had caused, later in the day 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."