Pope drops plans to visit Iraq

"The Americans and the British control the air space. A few months ago they bombed an area near Ur. What would happen if they bombed the same area during the visit or, if not them, then some hothead," the Vatican news agency Fides quoted Raphael Bidawid, the Patriarch of Babylon, as saying.

The 79-year-old pope plans to travel to the Holy Land in March to visit biblical sites as part of a pilgrimage marking the year 2000 — a jubilee, or holy year, in Catholicism.

Although he wanted to visit Iraq solely to pray at the birthplace of Abraham, such a trip would have had to include a meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for protocol reasons.

The United States, Britain, Israel, Jewish groups and anti-Saddam Iraqi exiles, among others, have protested such a trip, saying that Saddam could exploit it for his own purposes.

The pope already has frequently criticized the use of sanctions against Iraq and has expressed sympathy with the plight of the Iraqi people.