President Bush is in Rome, where he has met with Pope John Paul II, to discuss the future of Iraq. The Pope said he is encouraged by the appointment of a transitional government in Baghdad.

It was their first meeting since the president ignored the pope's plea for peace, and ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The Vatican sharply criticized that move and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody that followed. Without mentioning the Abu Ghraib scandal by name, the pope last week condemned torture as an intolerable affront to human dignity.

Meeting with the president at the Vatican, the pope said he is greatly concerned by what he called grave unrest in Iraq and the Middle East. He said Mr. Bush is very familiar with the Vatican's unequivocal position on Iraq, and said the situation there must be normalized as quickly as possible, with the active participation of the United Nations.

Slowed by age and ill health, the Pope spoke frailly, calling this week's appointment of a transitional government in Iraq an encouraging step that he hopes will rekindle new negotiations to end Israeli-Palestinian violence.

White House officials say the president assured the pope that U.S. forces are investigating the Iraqi prisoner abuse. Mr. Bush told the pope that U.S. efforts in Iraq are designed to restore stability and security.

"We will work for human liberty and human dignity, in order to spread peace and compassion," the president said. "We appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for, and we recognize the power of freedom to change societies and change the world."

The president presented the pope with the U.S. Medal of Freedom, in recognition of what he says is American gratitude and respect for the pontiff.

Administration officials discount the potential political benefits of this third meeting with the pope. Mr. Bush split the Roman Catholic vote in 2000, and has aggressively courted those voters in this year's campaign.

While many American Catholics disagree with the Vatican's opposition to artificial birth control and abortion, the Vatican's pro-life stance does appeal to the president's broader Christian supporters.

Reading from the Medal of Freedom citation, Mr. Bush praised the pope's denunciation of abortion.

"He has defended the unique dignity of every life and the goodness of all life," Mr. Bush said.

Before their visit to the Vatican, Mr. and Mrs. Bush paid a courtesy call on Italian President Carlo Ciampi. They laid a wreath at the site of a Nazi massacre of Italians during the Second World War, and will attend a dinner hosted by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.