1 of 2
Pope John Paul II

OSLO, Norway — Pope John Paul II, who lobbied vigorously against the Iraq war, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who has long promoted human rights worldwide, topped the list of likely winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in the hours before today's announcement.

Most Nobel watchers thought Havel was perhaps the favorite, reflecting a last-minute shift of opinion away from the pope.

But the Web-based betting site Centrebet gave John Paul 2-1 odds of winning the prize, ahead of Havel (8-1), who received this year's Gandhi Peace Prize. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was given 14-1 odds, while Afghan leader Hamid Karzai had 25-1 odds.

The speculation comes as the frail, 83-year-old pope marks his 25th anniversary as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to his popular stance against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, John Paul has also been outspoken in calling for an end to Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Espen Barth Eide, a former deputy foreign minister of Norway and an international affairs expert, said he could see the pope winning — but only if the prize were shared with a Muslim.

"For a prize to honor (Christian-Muslim) dialogue to be meaningful, it has to honor both sides," Barth Eide said. But he had no idea which Muslim that might be.

However, experts agreed there was no clear favorite, and the secretive five-member awards committee gave no hints, saying only that a record 165 people and organizations were nominated this year.

The prize, which includes a $1.3 million cash prize, was to be announced in Oslo on Friday at 5 a.m. EDT. The committee keeps names of its nominees secret for 50 years.

The awards committee urges those making nominations not to announce them. Some do anyway, leading to at least a partial list of candidates.

The media and Nobel watchers, making educated guesses, put together their own list of annual favorites. But picking the winner can be very difficult. Last year, former President Jimmy Carter wasn't seen as a strong candidate, but received the prize.

This year, the guess list includes Silva for trying to overcome social injustice in Brazil; Russian anti-war group Mothers in Black; jailed Iranian dissident Hashem Aghajari; Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyev; Italian charity The Community of Sant' Egidio; the Salvation Army; American politicians Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar for their Cooperative Threat Reduction Program; and Karzai.

Other nominees include U2 singer and social activist Bono and pop singer Michael Jackson.

In the United States, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was nominated after he removed 167 prisoners from death row.

"There are no strong individual candidates this year with the possible exception of Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who himself was a political prisoner," said Yasmine Sherif, a Swedish former U.N. Human Rights lawyer. "He exemplifies the need for an ethical and moral transformation in the world."

Havel, 67, became widely known after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms attempted by liberally minded Communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.

When communism fell in 1989, Havel founded a broad opposition movement and helped end communist rule in his country. He was elected president on Dec. 29, 1989, and served until 2003.

Norwegian peace researcher Stein Toennesson, who caused a frenzy of speculation when he mentioned John Paul as his favorite, later backtracked, favoring instead Havel.

"Perhaps the most likely candidate this year is a man virtually everyone can agree is a man of peace and integrity," said Toennesson, head of the Peace Research Institute, which is not connected to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Barth Eide said he did not want to hazard a guess, but offered that the European Union and U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq could be worthy.

"The U.N. weapons inspectors, despite American intelligence, turned out to be right: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." he said. The EU has been touted because of its eastward expansion, which will see 10 new countries join the 15-member bloc in May.

President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and French President Jacques Chirac were all nominated, but were seen as having no chance. Centrebet gave Bush 500-1 odds of winning.


On the Net: Nobel site: www.nobel.se