No ground given as Pope meets Blair

Peter Popham
Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00

The most passionate exponents of war and peace in Iraq, Tony Blair and the Pope, came face to face in the Vatican yesterday, but it is unlikely that either man gave any ground.

The Pope has met with many of the key players in the Iraq crisis in recent days. Rumours that Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, would invite him to meet Saddam in Baghdad, or that the Pope would urge the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to fly to Iraq on an 11th-hour peace mission, proved unfounded. If the Vatican has a plan for peace, it is keeping it under wraps.

But yesterday was the first time the Pope has gone one-on-one with a leader of the war camp. Sources in the Vatican had apparently advised against the meeting. Perhaps they feared the cunning uses to which Mr Blair might put the fact that the Pontiff was willing to meet him.

If there were fireworks, the Vatican was not letting on. The Pope's spokesman said the 30-minute meeting was "cordial". He said the Pope had appealed to Mr Blair to use the UN to resolve the crisis and "to avert the tragedy of a war which according to many people is still avoidable".

And the Pope, whose differences with British policy go back to the first Gulf War, which he opposed, underlined the misery brought about by the sanctions on Iraq that successive British governments have endorsed. He pointed to "the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people, already tried greatly by long years of embargo".

What Mr Blair said in his defence is not known. Downing Street has been coy about the meeting, which it said was "private". But it is likely that Mr Blair restated some of the points he made at a press conference in Rome on Friday. He told reporters: "I obviously know the views of the Pope very well and they're very clear. Let me make one thing clear: we do not want war, no one wants war.

"But there is a moral dimension to this question, too. If we fail to disarm Saddam peacefully, then where does this leave the authority of the UN? And if we leave Saddam in charge of Iraq with his weapons of mass destruction, where does that leave the Iraqi people who are the principal victims of Saddam?"

In a comment on the eve of Mr Blair's visit, the United States ambassador to the Vatican, R James Nicholson, suggested the views of the US and Britain, and the Vatican, were identical regarding war: both sides saw it as the last resort. But that underestimates the Pope's deep misgivings about the West's dealings with Iraq over the past 12 years.

In January he told diplo-mats: "No to war! War ... is always a defeat for humanity."

If the Pope had doubts about meeting Mr Blair, his wife Cherie's devout Catholicism, and the fact the family regularly go to Mass, may have made the difference. After the meeting, Mrs Blair and the couple's three older children joined them for a private audience. The meeting clearly serves Mr Blair's purpose in trying to win over opponents of war by showing he is on speaking terms with war's most eloquent opponent. On Friday, Mr Blair described his responsibility as "the difference between leadership and commentary".

Yesterday's meeting was believed to be the first time a Pope had met a British Prime Minister since Harold Wilson returned from Rome in 1965 with a rosary.

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