FROM JERRY FILTEAU IN WASHINGTON DC
THE AMERICAN Catholic bishops have urged President George W Bush to exercise restraint and reason in his attempts to secure victory in the war in Iraq.
Every American action or ▪ policy in Iraq "ought to be evaluated in light of our nation's moral responsibility to help Iraqis to live with security and dignity in the aftermath of US military action," said Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane. Wash ., ington, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Bishop Skylstad said the new policies announced by Mr Bush last week must be viewed within the framework of "a key moral question that ought to guide our nation's actions in Iraq: how can the US bring about a responsible transition in Iraq?"
He said "benchmarks" for progress toward such a transition include "minimally acceptable levels of security; economic reconstruction to create employment for Iraqis; and political structures and agreements that help overcome divisions, reduce violence, broaden participation and increase respect for religious freedom and basic human rights".
"Any action or failure to act should be measured by whether it moves toward these benchmarks and contributes to a responsible withdrawal at the earliest time," he added.
Bishop Skylstad noted that the US bishops and the Vatican had expressed "grave moral concerns about the military intervention in Iraq" and its potential for uncontrollable negative consequences.
"In light of current realities, the Holy See and our conference support broader regional and international engagement to increase security, stability and reconstruction in Iraq," he said.
"Another necessary step is more sustained US leadership to address other deadly conflicts in this region, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the crisis in Lebanon," he added. He said the bishops' conference has repeatedly called for "substantive, civil and non-partisan discussion of ways to bring about a responsible transition in Iraq".
"Such civil dialogue is even more essential and urgent at this moment of national discussion and decision," he said.
In an address on national television last week, Mr Bush outlined a plan to boost troop strength in Iraq by about 21,500 and set a series of benchmarks the Iraqi government is expected to meet in coming months to stabilise the country and promote its economic recovery.
Bishop Skylstad did not comment directly on specifics of the Bush plan. He said the bishops "are deeply concerned for the lives and dignity of the people of Iraq who suffer so much and for the men and women in the military who serve bravely, generously and at great risk".
He said that as religious leaders and human rights defenders the bishops "have expressed particular alarm at the deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq".
Their special vulnerability highlights the dangers being faced by all Iraqis, including Sunnis and Shias, he said.
A day after Mr Bush announced he wanted to send more soldiers to Iraq, antiwar activists held protests in a number of American cities, including San Francisco, Boston, Washington and New York.
Demonstrators said the build-up planned by the president will cause more bloodshed and give insurgents new American targets.
Organisers of the protests said they were a prelude to a January 27 march in Washington, which will "send a strong, clear message to Congress and the Bush administration" that the American people want Congress to act to end the war in Iraq and "bring the troops home now".
Last year the American bishops wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to ask her to discuss their concerns over US policy in Iraq.