BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A visiting U.S. church official urged the United States on Thursday to negotiate with Iraq to avert a war that he said would make the United States less secure and increase the risk of terrorism in the Middle East.

Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former congressman from Pennsylvania, told a news conference that his 13-member delegation expected - on their return to the United States - to meet with Bush administration officials and members of Congress to press for a peaceful solution.

"We think we can win without war," Edgar said. ``The inspectors are here. They are inspecting. Let them do their work.''

``While the inspections are going on we would hope that negotiations would also be going on between the two governments,'' he said.

U.N. inspectors returned to Baghdad in late November under a new Security Council mandate to search the country for banned nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or the means to deliver them. President Bush has threatened war to disarm Saddam Hussein if he does not cooperate with the inspection program.

Edgar and other delegation members said they had found a distressing humanitarian situation during four days of visits to Iraqi hospitals and schools. He said the food ration for Iraqis was inadequate to keep them healthy.

Edgar said the delegation, which included Methodists, Unitarians and Presbyterians among other denominations, came as a religious and not a political group.

He said he wanted to make clear the group does not support authoritarian governments and had asked ``pointed questions'' about freedom in Iraq in a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

Edgar said a war would harm innocent Iraqis and increase the threat of terrorism aimed at both America and Israel.

He conceded it would be a tough battle to prevent a war, given that ``the rhetoric of the governments of both the United States and Iraq lean in the direction of war.''

But, he added, ``We believe there is a chance to move back from the brink of war. I'm optimistic that we have time.''

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