The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that those who decided for the Iraq war may have failed to consider its true implications in terms of justice and "long-term building and healing."
Dr Rowan Williams' comments came in what has been described as "a nuanced but powerful sermon" as part of a memorial service he led this weekend for the 179 British personnel who died in the conflict.
The Anglican leader was speaking to an audience that included the current British Prime Gordon Brown, his predecessor Tony Blair (regarded as one of the leading architects of a war many see as disastrous) and the Queen - who is both head of the armed forces and head of the Church of England under the peculiar state-church constitutional architecture of the country.
Mr Blair was also directly snubbed by the father of one of the servicemen killed in the conflict - something which observers say "visibly shook him".
Referring to St Paul's warning about the underlying spiritual conflict embodied in our public choices, Dr Williams spoke of "[t]he invisible enemy [who] may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice — letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.”
The Archbishop, who has previously criticised the “ignorant” and “flawed” policy in Iraq, was careful to praise the costly work of troops on the ground while raising questions for both policy-makers and commentators
However, the main thrust of his address at the Iraq remembrance servce in St Paul’s Cathedral was the shortcomings of policymakers in Iraq.
Quoting a biblical passage from the New Testament referring to “spiritual wickedness in high places", Dr Williams declared: “Many people of my generation and younger grew up doubting whether we should ever see another straightforward international conflict, fought by a standing army with conventional weapons."
He continued: “We had begun to forget the realities of cost. And when such conflict appeared on the horizon, there were those among both policy-makers and commentators who were able to talk about it without really measuring the price, the cost of justice.”
The Archbishop is seen as referring to the cost in human lives — both among the British military and the Iraqi civilian population — as well as the cost to the nation, which amounted to £7.8 billion.
The Archbishop's criticism of the government's failure to evaluate the cost and risks of the war is a reflection of his long-standing personal opposition to it.
Chapter six of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which was the second reading at the service, is one of the most powerful in the Bible. It declares: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Dr Williams also made it clear that the thanksgiving service was not for military triumphalism but about a deeper moral commitment.
He said that "healing and the building up have been at the heart of the efforts of those we commemorate today. No short-term job, as those in Iraq who are now continuing the work will testify."
His sermon is being seen as a coded and diplomatic criticism of the war, appropriate to a delicate civic ceremony, but clear nevertheless in its intent to question the enterprise and its outcomes.