IRAQ. US President George Bush sought to bolster Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday, saying his government faces a defining moment in its deadly crackdown against Shi'ite militants.
Fighting that began this week in the Southern city of Basra has drawn US forces into the fray. Bush cast it not as a setback, but as a sign Maliki's government is willing to confront "criminal elements or people who think they can live outside the law."
"I would say that this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq. There have been other defining moments up to now but this is a defining moment," the president said at a White House news conference. "It is a necessary part of the development of a free society."
The fighting has spread to Baghdad and pitted Iraqi security forces against Shi'ite fighters loyal to radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
On Friday, authorities shut down Baghdad with a strict curfew but attacks and clashes in the capital continued.
Bush spoke after the US military stepped in to support Iraqi security forces by launching air strikes in Basra for the first time and battling militants in Baghdad.
Like Bush, Iraqi authorities describe their adversaries as outlaws. But Sadr loyalists say Maliki's Shi'ite-led government is using military force to marginalize rivals before elections due by October.
Bush said the crackdown showed Iraqis that Maliki was willing to act against fellow Shi'ites. "In order for this democracy to survive, they must have confidence in their government's ability to protect them and to be even-handed," he said.
With about ten months left in office and his approval ratings stuck near the lows of his presidency, Bush has made a series of speeches in recent weeks defending his Iraq policy and appealing for patience from the American public.
Coming on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the 2003 US-led invasion, the violent flare-up has raised concerns about the durability of a unilateral ceasefire by Sadr. US military officials have credited the ceasefire with much of the sharp drop in violence since last Summer.
US Commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will deliver their assessment of Iraq's progress in a little over a week.
The United States is withdrawing the extra five combat brigades - roughly 18,000 troops - sent last year to quell sectarian violence. But it says further withdrawals depend on Iraq's stability. There are now 156,000 US troops in Iraq.
The president tied Maliki's actions to a larger US strategy that includes defeating the so-called Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq and militants in Mosul and containing Iran's influence.
"This situation needed to be dealt with, and it's now being dealt with," Bush said.
"We want to help establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East...we want to send a clear message to Iran that they're not going to be able to have their way with nations in the Middle East....we want to make it clear that we can defeat Al Qaeda."