BY SIMON CALDWELL Clam o Si i EN President George W Bush has faced unprecedented criticism over the war in Iraq from America's Catholic bishops.
In a six-page statement delivered to the White House and Congress last week, the bishops not only reiterated their opposition to the war but also taunted the President over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
They upbraided him over the conduct of some American troops, saying that continuing reports of the abuse and torture of terror suspects in prisons run by the American military and Iraqi government were "deeply disturbing" The bishops also urged the withdrawal of troops from Iraq "sooner rather than later".
The statement, signed by Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Florida, the chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy, makes clear that Church leaders view the invasion of Iraq as folly, Although the bishops have spent months preparing the document, it was released just weeks after President Bush, in an address televised to the nation, ruled out an early withdrawal from Iraq in the face of increasing pressure from Democrat and Republican politicians to bring American troops home.
It also comes less than a month after Mr Bush, confronted by the prospect of a rebellion by the Senate and the House of Representatives, withdrew his threat to veto proposals to ban cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of termrist suspects.
In their statement, called 'Toward a Responsible Transition in Iraq", the bishops said that the war's toll was measured in "lives lost and many more injured, in persistent violence and insurgency, and in the daily struggles of Iraqis to build a future for their torn nation".
"Our conference of bishops mourns the deaths of more than 2,100 of our nation's sons and daughters and of tens of thousands of Iraqis," said Bishop Wenski. "We share the pain of countless numbers of persons-who have been injured and maimed and of those whose lives will never be the same.
"There have been achievements. A dictator has been deposed and elections have been held, but the human and social costs of these achievements must be recognised."
Addressing both sides of the debate on Iraq Bishop Wenski said America could not afford a "shrill and shallow" discussion which reduced the military options to "cut and run" versus "stay the course".
He said that the country must instead undertake an "honest assessment of our responsibilities" that in turn would commit America to a policy of "responsible transition".
"Our nation is at a crossroads in Iraq," he said. "We must avoid two directions that distort reality and limit appropriate responses. We must resist a pessimism that might move Our nation to abandon ahe moral responsibilities it accepted in using force and might tempt us to withdraw prematurely from Iraq without regard for moral and human consequences. We must reject an optimism that fails to acknowledge clearly past mistakes, failed intelligence, and inadequate planning related to Iraq, and minimises the serious challenges and human costs that lie ahead.
"Instead, our nation must act with a constructive and informed realism that helps us to learn from the past and move forward. Our policymakers and citizens must be willing to ask difficult moral questions regarding 'preventative war' and to learn from our experience in Iraq."
The bishop added: "Our nation's military forces should remain in Iraq only as long as it takes for a responsible military transition, leaving sooner rather than later."
He said the bishops had always held "grave moral concerns about the military intervention in Iraq and the unpredictable and uncontrollable negative consequences of an invasion and occupation".
He said: "Similar concerns were articulated powerfully by Pope John Paul II and the Holy See. The events of the past three years, the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the continuing violence and unrest in Iraq have reinforced those ethical concerns."
The bishops, however, reserved their most trenchant criticism for the abuse and torture of terror suspects, demanding that the American government took immediate steps to end the violations and discover how they came about.
"The abuse and torture of detainees violate human rights," said Bishop Wenski. 'They simultaneously undermine both the struggle against terrorism and the prospects of a responsible transition in Iraq.
"Such abuse undercuts our nation's moral credibility and damages our nation's ability to win popular support in other countries where backing is needed for the struggles in Iraq and against global terrorism. Our nation simply must live up to our own Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984.
"As a world leader, our nation's adherence to international standards ought to be exemplary."
He said that the bishops supported the efforts in Congress to ban abusive treatment and to provide uniform standards for interrogation.
An American-led coalition attacked Iraq on March 19,2003, in spite of vigorous attempts by the Holy See to forestall the invasion. The following May a jubilant Mr Bush declared that the war was over.
However, the occupying powers have faced a Sunni insurgency; bomb attacks, kidnappings and murders by al-Qaeda terrorists and an uprising by Shia Muslims loyal to the radical cleric Moqtacla al Sadr. The failure by America to halt the violence has been compounded by the scandalous maltreatment of captives at the hands of American troops in Abu Ghraib prison, Baghdad, in 2004.
Then last year the US came under international criticism when it was alleged that the CIA, in a practice known as rendition, flew suspects to prisons in countries with poor human rights records to be interrogated under torture.