WASHINGTON — President Bush on Friday branded the recent eruption of violence across Iraq as a "defining moment in the history of a free Iraq" and insisted it was crucial to quash criminal elements eager to disrupt the new government.
Bush spoke at a White House news conference after meeting with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who plans to withdraw 500 combat troops from Iraq.
The president refused to concede that the new prime minister's decision was another signal that U.S. allies' support for the conflict has eroded. In December, Rudd replaced John Howard, who was one of Bush's strongest allies in the war on terror.
""I guess it depends if you're a half-glass-empty guy or a half-glass-full guy," Bush said of Rudd's decision.
Rudd told Bush during friendly talks Friday that Australia remains committed to "spending a lot of money training a lot of Iraqi farmers and agricultural scientists in the year ahead."
That sounded good to Bush, even though he's repeatedly derided critics who want U. S. troops out of Iraq.
He called the Australian troop decision "return on success, returning home on success," and equated it to what he plans to do this year.
"Troops are coming out because we're successful," Bush said. "That's fundamentally different from saying, 'Well, it's just too hard. Pull them all out.'"
Bush struck his insistent, even defiant, tone as the violence in Iraq escalated. He spoke as U. S. aircraft hit targets in Basra and a Shiite area of Baghdad.
The president patiently explained that the fighting was a defining moment because the Iraqi government had taken the lead.
He recalled asking Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki whether he'd be "willing to confront criminal elements, whether they be Shia or Sunni?"
"Would he, in representing people who want to live in peace, be willing to use force necessary to bring to justice those who, you know, take advantage of a vacuum, or those who murder the innocent?" Bush asked.
"His answer was, 'Yes sir, I will,''' the president recalled. "And I said, 'We'll have our support, if that's the case, if you believe in even-handed justice."
Some analysts have suggested that the fighting in Basra is aimed more at crippling forces loyal to radical Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr. Sadr has called for a political end to the conflict.
Bush described what he said was the key problem in the region.
"One of those things that's been well-known is that Basra has been a place where criminality has thrived," he said. "It's a port. A lot of goods and services go through there, and ...from the beginning of liberation, there have been criminal elements that have had a pretty firm hand in Basra."
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are scheduled to report to Congress on April 8 on the war's status.
Bush gave a preview of sorts Friday, saying, "There's been substantial progress, and there has been, but it's still a dangerous, fragile situation in Iraq."
He listed four reasons why "it's important to be successful in Iraq":
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Read the transcript of the press conference.