VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II's envoy to Baghdad said his meeting with Saddam Hussein convinced him that peace is possible and that the Iraqi leader is "very open to dialogue," according to an interview published Monday.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was to brief the pope Tuesday about his mission to Iraq. Also Tuesday, John Paul was to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was coming to Rome to address a gathering at a U.N. agency.
"I found the (Iraqi) president very open to dialogue," Etchegaray was quoted as telling the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. "He listened to me with great attention."
The pope send the envoy last week to deliver a personal message to the Iraqi president.
"I know he's a difficult interlocutor," the cardinal said in the interview, conducted in Baghdad before Etchegaray returned to Rome.
"But I am certain that I relayed well the pope's message to him," Etchegaray said. "Now I'll relay his words to the Holy Father."
The cardinal did not specify the contents of either message.
Etchegaray said he tried to push the Iraqi leader "to reflect, to try to be more open and to exert himself to the maximum to avoid armed conflict."
The cardinal said he was on a "moral mission" and didn't raise contentious topics related to U.N. weapons inspections.
The United States says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions and says force may be needed to disarm Saddam. Baghdad denies it has such weapons.
"Amid the big clouds that are piling up in these times, there has been a little clearing" which should be used by all to "respond to the needs of the international community," Etchegaray said in his departure statement released by the Vatican.
"The slightest step of the next days can take on the form of a big leap toward peace," he said. "Peace is still possible in Iraq and for Iraq," the envoy said, adding that he headed back to Rome "crying out more strongly than ever before" that peace can be achieved.
On Friday, John Paul, in private talks at the Vatican with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, urged Saddam to demonstrate a "concrete" commitment to disarmament.