Vatican City, Feb. 10--Cardinal Roger Etchegaray set out on a papal peace mission to Baghdad on Monday (Feb. 10), carrying a personal message from Pope John Paul II to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "The pope is not resigned. He has decided to go to the extreme limits of hope, and I am his messenger," the 80-year-old French prelate told reporters at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport.

Etchegaray left shortly before an invitation-only talk in Rome by conservative American theologian Michael Novak to try to explain to Vatican critics why the Bush administration is determined to set a deadline within weeks for a preventive strike against Iraq.

Novak, who holds a chair at the Enterprise Institute in Washington, came to Rome at the request of the U.S. Embassies to Italy and the Vatican. He met Saturday with officials of the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

The Vatican said in announcing Etchegaray's mission that he will try to convince the Saddam regime to avert war by complying with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 and cooperating with weapons inspectors. "The scope of the pontifical mission is to demonstrate to all the solicitude of the holy father for peace and then to help the Iraqi authorities to reflect seriously on the duty for effective international cooperation, based on justice and international law, in view of assuring those peoples the supreme good of peace," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

The Vatican has made clear a preventive strike would not meet the criteria of the Catholic Church for a "just war," and the 82-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff has mounted an all-out peace offensive in recent days.

Following an audience Feb. 7 with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, John Paul will meet this Friday (Feb. 14) with Iraq's Vice Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, No. 2 in the Saddam regime, and is expected to confer four days later with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Vatican officials have said, however, there are no plans at present to send an envoy to talk to President Bush. Cardinal Pio Laghi, the Vatican's ambassador to Washington for 10 years during the Reagan administration, denied he had been chosen for the assignment but added, "You never know."

Etchegaray, a former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace known for his charm and tact, is the pope's most trusted troubleshooter. John Paul sent him to Bethlehem during the siege of the Church of the Nativity last April. The cardinal also visited Baghdad twice previously in recent years on papal missions. He traveled to Iraq in 1985 to press for an exchange of prisoners taken in the Iran-Iraq war and in 1998 in an unsuccessful attempt to arrange a papal visit to Ur of the Chaldes, the biblical birthplace of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham.

Etchegaray, who was flying to the Jordanian capital of Amman and from there will make a 12-hour drive to Baghdad, planned to spend most of this week in Iraq. He did not rule out the possibility of flying back to Rome with Aziz.

Aziz, a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, will drive to the hilltown of Assisi the day after his audience with the pope to pray at the tomb of St. Francis, the Franciscan custodians of Assisi reported. The Chaldean church is in full communion with Rome, and its members make up about 3 per cent of the population in predominantly Muslim Iraq.

Vatican officials have said the pope, who has called repeatedly for an end to the economic embargo against Iraq, is concerned not only about the political repercussions of a war in Iraq and its effects on the civilian population but also about possible reprisals against the Christian minority.

Addressing members of the Community of Sant'Egidio on Saturday, John Paul made a strong appeal for continued action in search of peace. "We cannot stop in the face of terrorism nor before the threats arising on the horizon," he said. "We must not be resigned almost that war is inevitable."

The Rome-based community of Catholic activists is credited with ending war in Mozambique and has worked for peace in other parts of Africa and in Central America.

Etchegaray was accompanied to Baghdad by Monsignor Franco Coppola, a Vatican diplomat who is an expert on the Middle East.

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