ROME – Pope John Paul II's special envoy to Iraq set off from Rome on Monday, saying the pontiff had decided to explore "the last limits of hope." Separately, Franciscan monks announced Iraq's deputy prime minister would join them in a prayer for peace next weekend in the hillside town of Assisi.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a veteran of Vatican diplomatic missions in tense times and places, flew to Paris to catch a flight to Amman, Jordan. He will travel from there to Baghdad.
The Vatican announced Sunday that the cardinal was going to emphasize the pope's plea for peace and to encourage Iraqi authorities to cooperate with the United Nations, which has demanded that Iraq rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has been warning of the possibility of war if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein doesn't comply completely and swiftly.
"The pope isn't resigned" to war, Etchegaray told reporters before boarding his flight to Paris. "He had decided to pursue the last limits of hope and I am his messenger."
The Vatican said it didn't know when the cardinal would reach Baghdad or begin meetings there. He was traveling with Monsignor Franco Coppola, a Vatican diplomat.
For years, the French cardinal headed the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The pope is scheduled to receive Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz Friday at the Vatican. The cardinal, asked if he might fly back with Aziz to Rome, smiled and said: "You never know."
Also Monday, a Franciscan spokesman said Aziz was to travel to Assisi for a morning of prayer with monks in the frescoed Basilica of St. Francis, named after the medieval monk associated with peace.
"The world needs images of peace to conquer the images of war," the Rev. Enzo Fortunato said.
He said Aziz, a Chaldean Christian, would join the monks in lighting a peace lantern over the tomb of St. Francis and holding an ivory horn that was presented to St. Francis in 1219 by the then-sultan of Egypt, Melek el-Kamel.
The pope and top Vatican aides repeatedly have denounced the risk of any war to resolve the Iraqi crisis, insisting a preventive war has no justification and expressing fears such a conflict could spark Muslim rancor against Christians.
Some observers have wondered how persuasive Vatican diplomacy can be.
Details of the visit weren't released, but meetings with top Iraqi officials, including possibly Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, were expected.
The pope came out strongly against the 1991 Gulf War, and has denounced U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Etchegaray, 80, has represented the pope in other trouble spots, including Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he tried to help end the standoff last year between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
During a trip to Iraq in 1998, the cardinal explored the possibility of a papal trip there as part of John Paul's worldwide pastoral pilgrimages, but the trip never came off.