ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, no stranger to verbal gaffes, has come under fire again for a remark that critics say makes light of rape.
In 2008 Berlusconi claimed right-wing female politicians were better looking than their left-wing counterparts.
While campaigning for local elections in Sardinia Sunday, Berlusconi was asked by reporters to comment about an interior ministry proposal to deploy troops on city streets after a series of sexual assaults on women.
"We can't think of deploying a large force," Berlusconi said. "We would have to send as many soldiers as there are beautiful girls. And I don't think we would manage."
The comment drew widespread criticism, including from his political opponents. Opposition leader Walter Veltroni accused the prime minister of "ignoring the seriousness of sexual violence."
Later, Berlusconi said he meant his remarks as a "a compliment."
"Women have to be defended," he said. (Sexual violence) "is a trauma that remains for life."
A series of violent attacks prompted the proposal to deploy troops. On New Year's Eve, a woman was raped in Rome. And on Friday, a group of men attacked a couple, tying up the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
The conservative leader has a long record of questionable comments.
He was criticized in November after he told President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia that President Barack Obama "has all the qualities to get along well with you: he's young, handsome and suntanned."
And in run up to the 2008 Italian general election, Berlusconi claimed that right-wing female politicians were better looking than their left-wing counterparts.