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Violence, alerts mar Christmas Day

Children came forward to receive the pope's blessing.
Children came forward to receive the pope's blessing.

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VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II ushered in the Christmas holiday in a midnight Mass, delivering a homily where he said "too much blood is still being shed" in conflicts around the world.

But despite the pope's plea at St. Peter's Basilica, Christmas Day was off to a violent start, with explosions shaking the center of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Explosions and gunfire shook Baghdad near coalition headquarters before dawn on Thursday. (Blasts in Baghdad)

Eight rocket attacks were reported in one hour, with two rocket-propelled grenades hitting the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but video showed glass and debris in the hotel lobby and damage to the building's atrium.

Further afield, terror alerts prompted Air France to cancel flights into and out of Los Angeles through Thursday. (Flights suspended)

That action came amid fears of a terrorist attack in the United States. A senior U.S. official linked the decision to information that prompted this week's heightened U.S. terror alert.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration raised its alert to the second-highest level, saying it was necessary to guard against "al Qaeda's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland."

A Pentagon official told CNN on Wednesday the possibility of an attack using an airliner -- either one coming to the United States from Mexico or an Air France plane -- remains a major concern.

But it was a quiet start to Christmas Day elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Christians had to make their way through Israeli roadblocks to celebrate midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity.

For the third year in a row, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was absent because of restrictions put in place by Israel.

Earlier in the day, a procession with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem made its way through the streets to the church.

Outside, Palestinians hung anti-Israeli banners alongside a meager display of holiday lights and streamers in Manger Square.

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