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Pope to Blair: Avoid war 'tragedy'

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After their meeting, the pope received Blair's wife and children

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CNN's Alessio Vinci has more on the recent diplomatic strides by the Vatican to try to avert war in Iraq. (February 22)
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British PM Tony Blair has been using stressing the humanitarian angle. CNN's Robin Oakley reports (February 21)
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VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II has urged UK Prime Minister Tony Blair -- Washington's strongest ally in the drive to rally support for a possible military strike on Iraq -- to make every effort "to avert the tragedy of war."

During a private audience that lasted about 30 minutes on Saturday, the pope reiterated that "in the grave situation in Iraq, every effort to avoid new divisions in the world be made," the Vatican said in a statement.

Blair, who is an Anglican, shook the pope's hand and sat next to him during their discussions. The 82-year-old pontiff received Blair's wife Cherie, a Catholic, and their children at the end of the audience, the Vatican said.

In recent days, the pope met several players in the debate, including Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who is a Christian, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He also sent an envoy to meet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Italian newspapers have quoted Vatican sources as saying the pope had been reluctant to meet Blair because of his determination to disarm Saddam Hussein by force if he refuses to bow to the will of the United Nations.

Following talks in Rome on Friday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Blair acknowledged their differences but insisted that he also hoped for a peaceful solution to the crisis. (Full story)

"I obviously know the views of the pope very well and they are very clear. Let me just make one thing also plain -- we do not want war, no one wants war," he said.

"What the words of His Holiness the pope have described ... is the reluctance of people to go to war except as a last resort. That is our position."

But Blair made clear that he expected that Iraq would have to be disarmed by force, saying that in recent days there had been less co-operation with the UN weapons inspectors.

"The only circumstances in which Saddam is going to disarm peacefully are circumstances where he gets a clear, united message on behalf of the international community: Disarm peacefully or you will be disarmed by force," he said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday questioned whether military action would improve the lot of ordinary Iraqis.

Rowan Williams, leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans, said Christians believed "no war is a good war" and suggested that by attacking Iraq, Britain and United States would be undermining their own morality.

"I don't think anyone would deny that there is a moral case (for going to war) that rests upon the humanitarian situation of the people of Iraq," Williams told a news conference.

"The question is whether certain kinds of intervention would make the situation worse for the people in Iraq and in the region," said Williams.

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