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Pope in passionate plea for peace

Vatican City, March 16 (Reuters): In a passionate plea for peace, Pope John Paul today said that Iraq’s leaders had a duty to co-operate with the international community to avert war and told both sides there was still time to negotiate.

Departing at one point from his scripted Angelus address, he said that having lived through World War II, he felt duty-bound to tell the world: “Never again war”.

The Pope aimed some of his comments straight at Iraqi leaders: “To them, I direct my pressing appeal: the fate of your fellow countrymen must always be your priority.” The latest appeal from the Pope came as leaders from the US, Britain and Spain prepared to meet in an emergency summit on the Portuguese islands of the Azores in the Atlantic — dubbed by some critics as “a council of war”.

“The political leaders in Baghdad have the urgent duty to collaborate fully with the international community, to eliminate any motive for an armed attack,” the Pope told a large crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “But I would also like to remind the member countries of the UN, especially those that make up the Security Council, that the use of force represents a last resort.”

“That is why, faced with the tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the people of Iraq, I say to all: there is still time to negotiate, there is still space for peace.”

The 82-year-old pope, leader of the world’s one billion Catholics, has thrown himself into a vigorous diplomatic campaign against the threatened US-led attack on Iraq, emerging as one of the most powerful anti-war voices. He has held talks with the British and Spanish prime ministers, both firm supporters of the US line, as well as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

“The next few days will be decisive for the outcome of the Iraqi crisis,” the Pope said in his Sunday address. “Let us pray to the Lord for the different players to have courage and farsightedness.”

Pausing after delivering his pre-prepared address, the Pope improvised a more personal message to the world. “I belong to that generation that remembers well, that has experienced, and thanks to God survived, the Second World War. That is why I also have the duty to remind all those young people who have not had that experience, to remember and to say: never again war! We know very well that it is not possible to ask for peace at any price, but we all know how big, how enormous, is the responsibility of taking the decision (to go to war).”

The Pope’s peace envoy on Iraq, Cardinal Pio Laghi, called the Azores summit wrong. “Three countries are meeting in the Azores, only three, and that is wrong,” Laghi, a former ambassador to the US, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Laghi, who met President George W. Bush in Washington last week and urged him to avoid war with Iraq, encouraged the three nations to work to preserve peace rather than go to war.

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