- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

President Bush yesterday called fighting in southern Iraq a “defining moment in the history of a free Iraq,” raising the stakes for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he seeks to rout militia fighters who have already disrupted the country’s oil flow.

Mr. Bush’s comments came hours after U.S. warplanes joined that fight in Basra late Thursday night by shelling targets at the request of the Iraqi army, which has waged the battle mostly on its own since Tuesday.

Militia fighters were reported to have blown up one of Iraq’s two main oil-export pipelines, significantly threatening the country’s exports. And in Baghdad, U.S. forces have clashed with residents of Sadr City, the area named after the Iraqi cleric to whom many of the militia forces are loyal.

During a press conference at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Mr. Bush also denied that the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq is a blow to the U.S.-led coalition there.

Mr. Bush said the growing violence in the southern oil port of Basra and in Baghdad is “a good test” for Mr. al-Maliki.

“It’s going to take a while for them to deal with these elements. But they’re after it, and that’s what’s positive,” Mr. Bush said.

Rocket attacks on the U.S.-controlled Green Zone have increased this week, killing one U.S. civilian, wounding several others, and prompting the State Department to warn embassy personnel to seek shelter and wear protective gear.

Mr. al-Maliki also appeared to have extended the deadline for militia fighters to surrender and turn in their weapons. The Iraqi prime minister said earlier this week that the deadline would expire yesterday, but then his office announced that Basra residents had until April 8 to turn in weapons.

An al-Maliki adviser, however, told the Associated Press that the April 8 deadline was different from the deadline for the militias to surrender.

In a speech yesterday, Mr. Bush portrayed the battle as a demonstration of the Iraqi government’s independence from U.S. support, and went even further in clearly describing the battle of Basra as a crucial benchmark for the al-Maliki government.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Rudd met for the first time yesterday for about an hour, then held a press conference in the White House East Room, walking to the podium down the long, red-carpeted Cross Hall between U.S. service members holding the flags of both countries.

Mr. Rudd defeated longtime U.S. ally John Howard in November, after campaigning on a promise to withdraw Australia’s 500 or so soldiers from southern Iraq, and to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on climate change.

Both those positions put Mr. Rudd at odds with the Bush administration, but both leaders went out of their way to emphasize their agreements and downplay disagreements.

“I don’t see differences when it comes to foreign policy,” Mr. Bush said.

He argued that the U.S. is withdrawing about 30,000 troops over the next few months because the surge of that same number of soldiers last year improved security conditions. And he equated the U.S. drawdown with the Australian pullout.

“I would view the Australian decision as … returning home on success. That’s fundamentally different from saying, ‘Well it’s too hard. Pull them all out,’ ” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush called Mr. Rudd “straightforward,” “thoughtful,” “strategic in thought,” and said he is “committed to the same values that I’m committed to: rule of law and human rights, human decency.” Mr. Rudd did not mention the pullout of troops from Iraq, but announced that his government will spend $165 million to help train Iraqi farmers, and said the roughly 1,000 Australian troops in Afghanistan are there “for the long haul.”

“I’m confident that this alliance has strong robust future,” said Mr. Rudd, who is on a 17-day, five-country trip that will take him to Brussels; Bucharest, Romania; London and then Beijing for five days, his longest stop.

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