av SIMON CALDWELL PRESIDENT George W Bush has come under pressure from thc leader of the Catholic Church in America to pull forces out of Iraq.
He was urged to bring an end to the deployment of troops "at the earliest opportunity".
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington DC, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement directed at the White House that the situation in Iraq was "perilous".
He said that the search for peace required "moral urgency, substantive dialogue and new directions".
The bishop said: "We hope our nation has moved beyond the divisive rhetoric of the recent campaign and the shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to 'cut and run' versus 'stay the course'.
"The (Bush) administration and the new Congress need to engage in a collaborative dialogue that honestly assesses the situation in Iraq, acknowledges past difficulties and miscalculations, recognises and builds on positive advances ... and reaches agreement on concrete steps to address the serious challenges that lie ahead."
He said that US troops should stay in Iraq for only as long as it took for a "responsible transition" to a properly functioning civil society."Our nation should look for effective ways to end
their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with that goal," he said.
The bishop's four-page statement does not suggest a time-scale for a pull-out but comes just days after senior Democrats called for a phased withdrawal to begin within the next six months. It also comes in the wake of a crushing defeat inflicted by the Democrats on Mr Bush in the mid-term elections.
Political commentators have blamedthe Republicans' loss of control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate effectively leaving Mr Bush a "lame duck" president on growing dissatisfaction among the American public over the course of the war.
Under pressure to find a new strategy on Irdq Mr Bush agreed to set up the Iraq Study Group, which is led by exSecretary of State James Baker and former Democrat congressman Lee Hamilton and which is due to report in a few weeks time.
Bishop Skylstad said that he hoped the report would "bring about the honest dialogue our country needs".
"The Holy See and our bishops' conference have repeatedly expressed grave concerns about military intervention in Iraq and the unpredictable and uncontrollable negative consequences of invasion and occupation," the bishop added.
He also urged the US government to pursue a just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a policy
which they said would improve "the future of Iraq and the whole region".
His statement is an updated version of a six-page letter sent by the bishops to the White House in January which contained unprecedented criticism of the war.
Then, the bishops not only taunted President Bush for failing to find weapons of mass destruction, the premise on which the war was fought, but also upbraided him over the conduct of some US troops, describing reports of the torture of tenor suspects as "deeply disturbing".
The bishops have an influential voice in the US, counting 60 million Catholics among the country's 300 million population.
Their latest intervention marks the second time this month that the American Catholic Church has sought to shape US policy in Iraq.
A fortnight ago the bishops asked for a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, to discuss soaring violence against Christians in Iraq, including the beheading of a priest in Mosul and reports of the crucifixion of a teenage boy in Basra.
They want Miss Rice to urge the Iraqi government to create a safe haven for hundreds of thousands Christian refugees in the north of the country.
They have also asked her to grant asylum in the US to
Iraqi Christians who have fled
their homes to escape persecution by Islamic militants.