VATICAN, Feb 10, 03  (CWNews.com) -- Pope John Paul II has dispatched a personal envoy to Baghdad, as the Vatican has redoubled its efforts to avoid a war in Iraq.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, set off for Iraq on Monday. The French-born cardinal-- who has served as a special papal envoy in other international crises-- will meet with Saddam Hussein, carrying a personal letter from Pope John Paul to the Iraqi leader.

Rumors are circulating in Rome that the Pope will also send a personal envoy to meet with US President George W. Bush. The name of Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former papal nuncio to the US, has been suggested as the likely papal representative.

The announcement that the Pope was sending an envoy to Baghdad came amid a flurry of new Vatican diplomatic activity. Last Friday the Pope met with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, and reportedly gave his backing to a German-French effort to redouble inspection efforts in Iraq. Fischer told the press that the Holy Father was "the first world figure to be told" of the proposal.

According to an Australian press report-- not confirmed by the Holy See-- the Pope's message to Saddam Hussein contains a plea for cooperation with weapons-inspection efforts. The Australian report also claimed that the Pope might urge Saddam Hussein to leave Baghdad and go into exile in order to forestall a war.

An official Vatican statement on the papal mission was less specific, saying that Cardinal Etchegaray's mission would "help Iraqi authorities make a serious reflection on the duty of an effective international commitment based on justice and international rights."

Cardinal Etchegaray, who at the age of 80 is semi-retired, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that his mission was in keeping with the Pope's plan "to expend all efforts to preserve peace." The cardinal said that a war "would be a catastrophe in every respect." He explained: "First of all, it would have grave consequences for the people of Iraq, and make it more difficult for the West to promote the unity of the human family." Moreover, he added, a war would "seriously aggravate" relations with the Islamic world.

The Pope's envoy admitted that the prospects for a peaceful solution to the crisis are bleak, but said: "Nothing is impossible when we trust and God and walk alongside him." He said that the Pope is "worried, but not resigned."

Among his previous diplomatic assignments, Cardinal Etchegaray was dispatched to Iraq in 1986, during that country's war with Iran, when he visited POW camps in both countries. Again in 1998 he visited Iraq to discuss the possibility of a papal visit to Ur of the Chaldeans, the home of the patriarch Abraham. That visit never took place.

Andrea Riccardi, the head of the Sant'Egidio community and a close associate of Cardinal Etchegaray, told the daily Corriere della Sera that the possible impact of the cardinal's mission should not be underestimated. Cardinal Etchegaray, he observed, is "a charismatic personality who has his own knack for making contact with everyone, across cultural and religious boundaries."

More to the point, Riccardi continued, "unarmed prophets have made their voices heard in the past." He pointed to the role of Pope John XXIII in speaking with both American and Russian leaders, promoting a peaceful resolution to the Cuban missile crisis, in November 1962.