President Saddam Hussein told an envoy of Pope John Paul II today that the United States wanted to attack Iraq because it was a Muslim country, urging the pontiff to confront racial and religious discrimination.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray met with the Iraqi leader for 90 minutes in Baghdad and delivered a letter from the pope focusing on finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

"What is wanted from Iraq? Isn't it the right of the Iraqis and Arabs to say that the reason for this aggression is because Iraq is an Arab Muslim country?" Hussein was quoted by state television as telling Etchegaray.

"Then why is this aggressiveness with false pretexts, although Iraq does not have any weapons of mass destruction at a time Israel has all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, kills the Palestinians and destroys their property though they are an unarmed people?" Hussein reportedly said.

"Isn't this a clear racial and religious discrimination? This is the question," he said. "I think if the pope addresses this question, he will be influential in Christian communities. This is his historic responsibility and his responsibility in front of God."

Etchegaray told reporters after the meeting that he discussed ways to avert a military confrontation.

The talks "centered on seeing if everything is being attempted . . . to guarantee peace and reestablish an atmosphere that allows Iraq to find its place in the international community again," he said.

Hussein told the envoy that the U.N. weapons inspectors had not found any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and "despite that, some still say that launching war is necessary to disarm Iraq."

The pope has become more involved in diplomacy aimed at averting a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. He met with Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, at the Vatican on Friday and will see U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan next week.

The Vatican has said it would not consider an attack on Iraq a "just war."

Cardinal Etchegaray, left, said he told Hussein that averting war would set the stage for Iraq "to find its place in the international community again."