A statement of the Vatican State Secretariat today expressed the hope that "when the clash of arms is silenced, Iraqis and the international community will respond to the decisive challenge for an era of peace to reign at last in the Middle East."

The Vatican statement described "the latest events that occurred in Baghdad" as "a very important radical change in the Iraqi conflict and a significant opportunity for the future of the population."

The Holy See "hopes that the military operations currently under way in the rest of the country will end soon, to avoid more victims, both civilian and military, and more sufferings to those populations."

"Now that the material, political and social reconstruction of Iraq is in the offing, the Catholic Church is ready, through its social and charitable institutions, to give the necessary help," stated the note given to journalists.

"Likewise, the dioceses of Iraq are prepared to offer their own structures to contribute to an equitable distribution of humanitarian aid," the statement concluded.