George W. Bush on Thursday offered his backing for the Iraqi government offensive against militia groups in Basra, hailing it as a sign of Baghdad’s increased willingness to take responsibility for security.
The president praised Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, for his “bold decision” to clampdown on insurgents and criminal gangs in the strategically important southern oil port.
Mr Bush said the operation demonstrated the growing strength of Iraqi security forces and offered confidence to the Iraqi people that their government was committed to enforcing the rule of law.
“This operation is going to take some time to complete and the enemy will try to fill the TV screens with violence,” he said. “But the ultimate result will be this: Terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society.”
The remarks came as heavy fighting flared in Basra for a third consecutive day, adding to the recent jump in violence across Iraq.
The fresh violence has raised doubts about whether the security gains achieved over the past year can be sustained as the US reduces its troop numbers in Iraq from a peak of 170,000 last year to about 140,000 by July.
Mr Bush is expected to accept proposals for a “pause” in the troop drawdown when General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, delivers a progress report to Congress next month. Gen Petraeus has recommended that a decision on further withdrawals should be postponed until the military has evaluated the impact of the initial reduction.
Speaking in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, Mr Bush said: “Progress in Iraq is real, it’s substantive, but it is reversible. And so the principle behind my decision on our troop levels will be ensuring that we succeed in Iraq.”
The Pentagon pointed to the offensive by Mr Maliki as evidence that the Iraqi security forces had made significant gains in their ability to operate with minimal help from coalition forces, which are providing air support for the campaign.
Colonel Steven Boylan, spokesman for General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, said the Iraqis had positively surprised the US military with the speed at which they had deployed two brigades of army and police.
Some experts have questioned whether the campaign in Basra could force an end to the ceasefire announced last year by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who leads the Mahdi army. But the US military says the ceasefire is holding, and that the militants were from splinter groups outside of the main faction.
“The cease fire is still in place. What we are seeing is the splinter groups or special groups that are not adhering the pledge by Sayeed Moqtada al-Sadr and are nothing but criminals,” said Col Boylan.