WASHINGTON, March 28 U.S. President George W. Bush said on Friday Iraq is facing a new "defining moment" in current violence as the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cracks down on Shi'ite militants.
"Any government that presumes to represent the majority of people must confront criminal elements or people who think they can live outside the law and that's what taking place in Basra," Bush said at a White House news conference.
"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," he said. "This is a test ... for the Iraqi government."
Bush spoke as U.S. forces were drawn deeper into the four-day-old crackdown, launching air strikes in Basra for the first time and battling militants in Baghdad.
The fighting has exposed a rift within the majority Shi'ite community and put pressure on al-Maliki, whose forces have failed to drive fighters loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr off the streets of Iraq's second-largest city. (Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; writing by David Morgan; editing by Mohammad Zargham)