Pope Tells Iraqi Official He Opposes War

.c The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope John Paul II told Iraqi's deputy prime minister on Friday that the Vatican opposed war against Baghdad but insisted that Saddam Hussein demonstrate ``concrete commitments'' to disarm.

Tariq Aziz, a Christian, met for about 30 minutes with the pope and later the Vatican secretary of state and foreign minister.

In a brief video tape released by the Vatican, the pontiff was shown firmly gripping Aziz's hand and saying: ``God bless you. God bless Iraq.''

In a brief statement, Vatican said the meetings allowed for an exchange of views ``on the known danger of an armed intervention in Iraq, which would add further serious suffering to a population already tried by long years of embargo.''

The statement said Aziz gave assurances of his government's willingness to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. The Vatican repeated ``the necessity of faithfully respecting, with concrete commitments, the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, guarantor of international legality.''

The statement, by papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, concluded by saying the Catholic Church would continue working for peace and coexistence of peoples.

Aziz arrived at the Vatican hours before U.N. weapons inspectors report to the Security Council about Iraq's cooperation in getting rid of its weapons of mass destruction.

Aziz said Thursday that Iraq was fully cooperating and that the United States wanted to impede inspectors' work so it had an excuse to launch a war and win ``domination'' of the Middle East and Iraq's oil reserves.

He denied claims that Iraq has a missile system with a longer range than allowed under U.N. limits. And in a television interview, Aziz said Iraq lacked the means to launch a military strike against Israel should war erupt.

``We don't have the means to attack Israel that we had in 1991,'' Aziz told France-2 television, referring to the Gulf War. ``We aren't a threat to anyone.''

The pope and top Vatican aides repeatedly have denounced the risk of any war to resolve the Iraqi crisis, insisting a preventive war has no legal or moral justification and expressing fears that a conflict could spark Muslim rancor against Christians.

Christians make up about five percent of Iraq's 22 million people.

John Paul himself has said any new war with Iraq would be a ``defeat for humanity.''

He has urged Iraq, however, to comply fully with weapons inspectors, dispatching a top envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to Baghdad with a personal message for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Aziz met with Italian opposition leaders Thursday and was expected to meet Friday with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

But he said the real purpose of his trip was his meetings at the Vatican, which also included the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano and the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Luis Tauran.

``We are very keen about the importance of the moral influence of the Holy Father when he asks for peace, and he refuses war,'' Aziz said late Thursday. ``This is very important for international public opinion.''

The U.S. national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, said in an interview with the Italian news weekly Panorama she couldn't understand the Vatican's argument against a preventive war.

``I don't see how it could be immoral to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people by acting against a brutal regime,'' she told the magazine.

``What we have seen is that non-action can sometimes result in enabling the most immoral of actions,'' she said.

The pope has long opposed of U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. When Aziz last visited the pope in 1998, the two discussed the embargo, which the Vatican says mainly hurts the poorest civilians.

On Saturday, Aziz was to travel to the hillside town of Assisi to participate in a morning prayer for peace with Franciscan monks at the Basilica of St. Francis, named for the medieval monk known for his message of peace.

02/14/03 08:41 EST

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