Pope lectures Bush on America's duties

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The Independent US

Pope John Paul II read President George Bush a stiff public lecture on America's duties in the world during an audience at the Vatican yesterday.

Pope John Paul II read President George Bush a stiff public lecture on America's duties in the world during an audience at the Vatican yesterday. The American President was in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the city by the Allies.

On the streets, up to 200,000 people streamed through the middle of the city and riot police with shields and batons clashed with small groups of masked protesters, some of whom threw bottles and flares.

The official reception for the President was more cordial. Speaking slowly and with excruciating effort, his hands and legs trembling from the effects of Parkinson's disease, the 84-year-old pontiff told Mr Bush that he hoped the Iraq situation would "now be normalised as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organisation, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people".

Praising the appointment of an Iraqi head of state this week as "an encouraging step", he implicitly chided the Bush administration for failing to knock heads together in the Holy Land. "May a similar hope for peace also be rekindled in the Holy Land and lead to new negotiations, dictated by a sincere and determined commitment to dialogue, between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority," he said.

And, without spelling it out, the Pope also made unmistakeable reference to the recent torture scandals in Iraq. "Other deplorable events," he said, "have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values. In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."

On the edge of his high-backed chair, Mr Bush listened to the Pope's words with eyebrows raised and an expression of frozen geniality on his face. He made no attempt at an extended defence of his government's actions, but presented the Pope with the Medal of Freedom, the highest honour the US can confer. Exactly 60 years ago yesterday, after more than 50 aerial bombardments of the city by the Allies, units of the US Fifth Army marched from the south into the city only recently evacuated by the Germans. When the Romans came out of their homes, they "literally bombarded the American soldiers with flowers", according to Robert Katz, an American historian specialising in the war in Italy.

"Everybody was in the streets, happy and joyful," remembered Spartaco Scaramella, 76, who was there, "singing and greeting the Americans. There were lorries full of people waving red, green and white-striped Italian flags ... I remember the day with deep joy. I was only 17, I had my whole life ahead of me".

Rome yesterday, by contrast, was a sullen, shuttered city, as Mr Bush and his 500-strong entourage swept through. Though not a public holiday, the enormous police and paramilitary presence on the streets convinced most businesses to stay closed all day, and once again Rome wore the look of a city under hostile occupation. One demonstrator, Mario Bucci, waving the rainbow-coloured Italian peace flag, said: "The Americans' credit as liberators was lost in Vietnam."

There were scattered violent incidents, with dustbins set alight and bottles hurled at police lines as the protesters wound through the city centre, chanting "Down with war", "Down with Bush", and "Assassins, assassins!"

A large majority of Italians opposed the Iraq war and the centre-left opposition to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government has called for the immediate withdrawal of Italy's 2,800 soldiers and paramilitaries based in Nasiriyah in the south of Iraq, 20 of whom have been killed.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission and "spiritual leader" of Italy's Olive Tree centre-left coalition, spoke for many Italians when he said yesterday, while visiting an Allied cemetery outside Bologna: "It's difficult to forget that the world would be different if, 60 years ago, this great international alliance of forces hadn't formed against Nazism."

In the run-up to the Iraq war some American leaders, notably the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, explicitly cited the ecstatic welcome accorded to American soldiers in Rome and other European cities when evoking what the conquerors of Iraq could hope to receive in Baghdad. But according to Robert Katz, the author of Fatal Silence, a book about the battle for Rome: "There is no comparison between the Italian and Iraq campaigns. The welcome the Americans received in Rome was the first and the most celebrated of the welcomes given them by liberated European cities."

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