updated 1/12/2005 9:44:08 AM ET 2005-01-12T14:44:08

The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican said Tuesday that officials in the Holy See want the United States to remain in Iraq and pacify the country despite Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war.

John Paul strongly opposed what the United States called a “preventive war” in Iraq, urging instead that U.N. weapons inspections be allowed to continue.

“We had an honest disagreement between two great leaders and what happened, happened,” Ambassador Jim Nicholson, recently nominated by President Bush to be secretary of veterans affairs, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Since then, most Vatican officials have been “forward looking,” he said.

“I will say that virtually everyone I talk to at the Vatican do not want the United States to pull out of Iraq. They want us to stay in there, solidify and pacify Iraq and help it become a free, stable and democratic country,” Nicholson said.

Bush promises quick resolution
On Monday, an Italian cardinal sent to the White House by the pope in March 2003 in a last-hour bid to dissuade Bush from invading Iraq said the president promised the American intervention would be wrapped up quickly.

Cardinal Pio Laghi said Bush told him: “Don’t worry, your eminence. We’ll be quick and do well in Iraq.”

Nicholson said he was present at that meeting and did not recall Bush saying that, although he said he would not dispute Laghi’s statement.

Differences over the war aside, Bush’s positions are in line with many of the Vatican’s — certainly more than his Democratic opponent in the November elections, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who supports a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Nicholson acknowledged that when Bush met the pope and other Vatican officials in June, he asked their help in getting American bishops to support his programs.

The ambassador said the pope and others praised Bush and thanked him for his “courageous stand” on such issues as human cloning, the family and marriage that were “so congruent with the Vatican.”

“The president thanked him for that affirmation and said it would be helpful if he could receive more of that from senior members of the church community,” said Nicholson, a Vietnam veteran and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In a Monday speech to diplomats, the pope put lobbying against gay marriage at the top of the Vatican’s agenda for 2005. Bush supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and 11 states adopted constitutional bans on gay marriage during the November election.

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