By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 28, 2008 - President Bush today called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's actions against criminal and militants in Basra a demonstration of leadership during a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq." Speaking during a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Bush said it's critical that the Iraqi government stand up to the forces that threaten it.
"Any government that presumes to represent the majority of people must confront criminal elements or people who think they can live outside the law," he said. "And that's what's taking place in Basra and in other parts of Iraq."
Bush said the decision to move Iraqi troops into Basra to confront these elements "talks about Prime Minister Maliki's leadership" and his willingness to apply the rule of law across the board, regardless of religious affiliation.
"His decision to move into Basra shows even-handed justice (and) shows he's willing to go after those who believe they're outside the law," he said.
Bush said he has not spoken to Maliki since the prime minister issued his order, but said it likely was the result of people getting tired of living among thugs who threatened their everyday lives. Maliki acted decisively and in the interest of Iraqi citizens, Bush said.
"This was his decision; it was his military planning; it was his causing the troops to go from Point A to Point B," Bush said.
The president called the clash taking place in Basra "a test and a moment for the Iraqi government," which has expressed solid support for Maliki's actions.
"And it is an interesting moment for the people of Iraq, because 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.
The situation also gives the Iraqi security forces, who have the security lead in Basra, an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities, he said.
"The United States, of course, will provide them help if they ask for it and if they need it," Bush said. "But they are in the lead. And this is a good test for them."