Pope John Paul piled pressure on George W. Bush over Iraq when they met on Friday while beyond the walls of the Vatican City more rowdy anti-war protesters attempted to disrupt the U.S. president’s visit to Rome
At various sites around the city, groups of people blocked traffic, set dustbins alight and daubed slogans against Bush on walls. One group carried a U.S. flag defaced with a swastika.
During a three-day trip to Italy and France, Bush will seek international support for his Iraq mission and commemorate the June 1944 liberation of Rome and the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
The pope, who strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, spoke of his concern for the “grave unrest” in the Middle East, and called for the “speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
“It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organization,” the pope said.
Bush, seated beside the pope, responded by telling the pontiff his government would work for “human liberty and human dignity.” He made no direct mention of Iraq or the prison abuse scandal that angered the Vatican.
Bush’s visit was timed to commemorate the liberation of Rome by Allied forces 60 years ago but it is the actions of a new generation of U.S. soldiers in Iraq that has raised passions.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch Bush ally, has warned of violent protests. Fears of a repeat of the mayhem that marred a G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 have led Italy to massively bolster security until Bush leaves on Saturday.
Most Italians opposed last year’s invasion of Iraq and many want Rome to withdraw its 2,700 troops stationed there.