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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK

World: Middle East

US attacks Pope's Iraq trip

The Pope has criticised sanctions against Iraq

The United States is urging Pope John Paul to drop his plans to visit Iraq, warning that President Saddam Hussein will try to exploit the trip.

The Pope wants to visit the ancient Iraqi town of Ur, where the Bible says Abraham was born.

State Department spokesman James Foley said: "We have expressed our concerns through diplomatic channels because of the likelihood that the regime in Iraq will attempt to manipulate the visit for political purposes."

"We have urged the Vatican to take this reality into account."

'Brutal regime'

The Pope is hoping to make a series of pilgrimages to holy sites in the Middle East as part of the millennium celebrations.

But Mr Foley said Saddam Hussein's brutal regime was not deserving of the recognition a Papal visit would bring.

[ image: Saddam Hussein: Ready to welcome Pope]
Saddam Hussein: Ready to welcome Pope
"We understand and sympathise with the Pope's desire to make a pilgrimage to these holy sites.

"At the same time, Iraq remains a brutal dictatorship, where torture and summary executions are commonplace and people are denied the most fundamental human rights."

There has so far been no official announcement from the Vatican.

But the Iraqi patriarch of the Eastern Chaldean church, Raphael Bidawid, has said the Pope is hoping to travel to Ur by way of Baghdad at the beginning of December.

Reports say Saddam Hussein wants to welcome the Pope personally to his country.

But before making the trip, the Pope will first have to get permission from the United Nations to waive the air embargo over Iraq which has been in operation since the Gulf War in 1990.

'Stop bombing'

Meanwhile, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said the US and Britain should stop "acts of aggression" against Iraq during the proposed Papal visit.

In an interview released on Friday, Mr Aziz suggested that bombings by US and British planes patrolling no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq would be the only threat to the Pope's safety.

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