VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope John Paul II held a private meeting with Iraq's deputy prime minister Friday, urging Saddam Hussein's government to commit fully to U.N. weapons inspections in hopes of averting war.
The pontiff's hopeful words came hours before chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix reported to the Security Council that his team had so far not found weapons of mass destruction. He spoke at a meeting that could determine whether the United States gets U.N. backing for military action.
The pope met with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Christian, for about 30 minutes Friday, gripping the Iraqi's hand firmly at the end. ``God bless you. God bless Iraq,'' John Paul said.
In a brief statement, the Vatican said Aziz's meetings with the pope and other Church officials allowed for an exchange of views ``on the known danger of an armed intervention in Iraq, which would add further serious suffering to a population already tried by long years of embargo.''
Aziz gave assurances of his government's willingness to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, the statement said.
The Vatican repeated ``the necessity of faithfully respecting, with concrete commitments, the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, guarantor of international legality.''
The statement, by papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, concluded by saying the Catholic Church would continue working for peace and coexistence of peoples.
The pontiff has been one of the most vocal opponents of the possible military action, saying in the past that war against Iraq would be a ``defeat for humanity.'' The Vatican has insisted that a preventive war has no legal or moral justification.
While in Italy, Aziz also planned to participate in a prayer ceremony with Franciscan friars in Assisi. His visit gave him a chance to articulate in Europe the Iraqi position against the war, with many of his remarks defiant and uncompromising.
He has said Iraq is fully cooperating with the United Nations and that the United States wants an excuse to launch a war and win ``domination'' of the Middle East and Iraq's oil reserves.
He has denied that an Iraqi missile system with a longer range than allowed under U.N. limits was a ``serious violation,'' adding in a television interview that Iraq lacked the means to launch a military strike against Israel should war erupt.
In an Italian newspaper interview published Thursday, he insisted that Saddam would avoid exile ``at any price.''
John Paul, while firmly criticizing the U.S. position, has also urged Iraq to do its part to comply fully with weapons inspectors. The pope dispatched top envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Baghdad this week with a personal message for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Aziz met with Italian opposition leaders Thursday and was meeting Friday with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. The conservative government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi is a strong ally of the Bush administration.
But Aziz said the main purpose of his trip was his meetings at the Vatican.
The U.S. national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, told the Italian news weekly Panorama published Friday that she couldn't understand the Vatican's argument against war.
``I don't see how it could be immoral to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people by acting against a brutal regime,'' she said.
The pope also opposed the 1991 Gulf War and has spoken out against U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. When Aziz last visited the pope in 1998, the two discussed the embargo, which the Vatican says mainly hurts the poorest civilians.