WASHINGTON – Pope John Paul II's envoy asked President Bush Wednesday whether the United States was doing its best to prevent war with Iraq, reiterating that the Vatican does not believe that pre-emptive war with Iraq has moral justification.
The president replied that removing Saddam Hussein from power would make the world a more peaceful place.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former ambassador to the United States from the Vatican, met with the president at the White House, where he delivered a letter from the pope expressing prayers for the United States and hopes it would search for a "stable peace."
Laghi was told that war will be fought if necessary.
In a 40-minute meeting, Bush said that "if it comes to the use of force he believes it will make the world better," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who attended the meeting. "Removing the threat to the region will lead to a better, more peaceful world in which innocent Iraqis will have a better life."
Pope John Paul II has said the war would be a defeat for humanity. He said Iraq should be disarmed peacefully, though U.S. officials insist without Saddam's cooperation that's unlikely to happen.
Laghi, who met with the president on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, may not have changed any minds, but he is still an old friend of the Bush family.
Laghi asked Bush several questions, including whether there should be an international effort to confront Saddam. He also expressed concern over the gulf between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Bush disagreed on the last point, saying the U.S. effort to expand education opportunities to children had brought the Muslim and Western nations closer together, a senior administration official said.
Neither the letter from the pope nor the envoy specifically urged Bush to avoid war, the U.S. official said.
On Wednesday, the pope appealed from the Vatican to the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics to join him in fasting and prayers for peace.
Before their meeting, Fleischer denied that it would be awkward, saying the president respects the opinions of those who disagree with him, but would be prepared to counter the papal envoy's arguments.
"The president welcomes the opportunity to describe his reasons from a moral point of view, from a legal point of view about why it's important to disarm Saddam Hussein and preserve the peace," he said.
Laghi said he is encouraged by the Iraqi government's decision to destroy its Al Samoud 2 missiles, which defied U.N. conditions that Iraq have no missiles that can fire beyond a 93-mile range. But, he acknowledged that he is not certain that Saddam is complying with U.N. resolutions.
"If he intends, really, to go ahead and disarm, and help the inspectors, certainly at this stage he goes too slowly. He goes very slowly. I think he should show more, I would say, if he intends to, because has been promising for 12 years, and now look where we are," Laghi said.
Catholics have been encouraged by the pope to oppose the war, creating a political problem for Bush, who has been actively courting Roman Catholic voters, half of which voted for him in 2000. Catholics made up a quarter of the 2000 electorate.
Louis Giovino of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said he couldn't tell whether the president would lose support among Catholics by going to war with Iraq. The pope has conveyed his opinion and not church doctrine, Giovino said, and the president has been very good at relating to issues of concern to Catholic voters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.