Pope calls for free Iraq

Fri 04 June, 2004 01:33 AM

By Caren Bohan and Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The pope has told President George W. Bush that Iraq has to regain sovereignty swiftly and has deplored the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops.

"It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation 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," the 84-year-old pontiff said on Friday.

The pope, who strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, met Bush in the Vatican while thousands of armed police lined major roads in Rome and anti-war demonstrators began to gather to protest against the presidential visit.

The pontiff and the president held 15 minutes of private talks alone in the pope's frescoed study before making addresses. Bush awarded the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. award given to a civilian.

As Bush arrived at the Vatican, some onlookers behind police cordons applauded while others whistled in disapproval and held up peace banners.

The pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and had difficulty pronouncing his words, said the meeting "takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land".

"DEPLORABLE EVENTS"

But the pope reserved his toughest words for a reference to the scandal over U.S. troops' abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

"In the past few weeks other deplorable events 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," he said.

"In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome," he added.

The scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers has inflamed the Arab world and embarrassed Washington. Last week the pope condemned torture as an intolerable affront to human dignity.

The pontiff, who sent envoys to both Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003 to try to avert war, said the appointment of a head of state in Iraq and the formation of an interim government were encouraging steps towards normalisation.

"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.

The pope said the threat of international terrorism "remains a source of constant concern" and reiterated his condemnation of the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States as a "a dark day in the history of humanity".

Bush responded that his government will work for "human liberty and human dignity". He made no direct mention of Iraq or the prison abuse scandal that angered the Vatican.

"I also bring a message from my government that says to you, sir, we will work for human liberty and human dignity in order to spread peace and compassion, that we appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for, and we recognise the power of freedom to change societies and change the world."

It was their third meeting but their first since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003.

The first lady, Laura Bush, wore a black skirt-suit and a veil to the audience and was introduced to the pope privately before attending the public speeches and the medal ceremony in another Vatican hall.