President Calls Battles in Iraq a 'Defining Moment'

President Bush said Friday that the recent increase in violence in oil-rich southern Iraqi and parts of Baghdad is 'a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq' as the government seeks to rout out Shiite militias. Video by AP
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008; 3:23 PM

President Bush today called the Iraqi government's battle against Shiite Muslim militias a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq" that shows a commitment to "even-handed justice," and he vowed continued U.S. help for the effort.

Answering questions from reporters after a White House meeting with Australia's new prime minister, Bush said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the decision to take on the militias and criminal gangs in the southern port city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and main oil-exporting hub. Bush said that he was "not exactly sure what triggered the prime minister's response" but that he suspects it stemmed from complaints from Basra residents who grew "sick and tired" of the gunmen's behavior in the city.

"From the beginning of liberation, there have been criminal elements that have had a pretty free hand in Basra," Bush said. "And it was just a matter of time before the government was going to have to deal with it."

"Most people want to have normal lives," he said. "Most people don't like to be shaken down."

It was Maliki, himself a Shiite, who "made the decision to move, and we'll help him," Bush said. He stressed that the offensive "was his decision; it was his military planning; it was his causing the troops to go from point A to point B." He added that "a lot of folks here in America were wondering whether or not Iraq would even be able to do it in the first place. And it's happening." Many key posts in the Maliki government are held by Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq's population.

Bush said Maliki's decision to move Iraqi forces into Basra "shows even-handed justice, shows he's willing to go after those who believe they're outside the law." Routing out the militias and gangs "is going to take a while," he said. "But it is a necessary part of the development of a free society."

Bush did not specifically address questions about the role of U.S. forces in fighting a major Shiite militia in Baghdad's Sadr City, where U.S. armor yesterday battled Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. There, Washington Post correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan saw U.S. Stryker armored vehicles, backed by U.S. helicopters and drones, engaging militiamen armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, as Iraqi army and police units stayed on the outskirts of the sprawling Shiite stronghold.

Bush insisted that Iraqi forces "are in the lead" in the Basra fighting, adding that "this is a good test for them." He said the United States "of course will provide them help if they ask for it and if they need it."

At the joint appearance with Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, Bush insisted he was not angry that Rudd had fulfilled a campaign pledge by moving to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq. He thanked Rudd "for being a good loyal ally on Iraq" and said he respects him for keeping a campaign commitment. Bush said Rudd consulted closely with the Iraqi government and U.S. military commanders on the move and thanked Australia for "stepping forward to help Iraq develop a civil society and a strong economy."

Rudd announced that Australia will provide "an assistance package of some $165 million" to Iraq, much of it earmarked for training Iraqis in agriculture, especially dry-land farming.

Rudd also said he confirmed to Bush "that we're in Afghanistan for the long haul." Australia has 1,025 military personnel in Afghanistan as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. The new government supports maintaining that commitment but has ruled out sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"It's a tough fight, but we intend to be there with our friends and partners and allies for the long haul," Rudd said. He said he looks forward to joining Bush at an upcoming NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, early next month for talks on "a common civil and military strategy" in Afghanistan.

Among other issues that came up in today's meeting, both leaders said, were global warming, international trade and developments in China, notably Tibet.

Rudd, 50, became prime minister in December after his center-left Australian Labor Party defeated the more conservative Liberal-National coalition led by John Howard in Australia's Nov. 24 election. During his nearly 12 years in office as prime minister, Howard became a close friend of Bush's and a staunch supporter of U.S. policies, including the war in Iraq.

In his first official act as prime minister, Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol, distancing himself from Bush on global climate change and leaving the United States isolated on the issue among developed nations. Bush has maintained that adherence to the accord would hurt the U.S. economy.

Rudd also differs with Bush on the war in Iraq, having pledged to withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from the country. While serving as the opposition's shadow foreign minister, a position he held from 2001 to 2005, Rudd told an interviewer in 2004 that "the Australian people were misled about the reasons for going to war."

Rudd told Australian reporters yesterday that he had made it "abundantly clear" to Bush both before and since his election victory that he favored withdrawing Australian combat troops from Iraq by the middle of this year. He said Australia would compensate for the pullout by increasing financial and humanitarian aid and by leaving troops that are involved in training and other noncombat roles. Those troops could be posted outside Iraq under his party's plan.

Rudd, who speaks Chinese and formerly served as a diplomat in Beijing, is scheduled to conclude his 17-day foreign trip with a visit to China.

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