George Bush signaled yesterday that he was likely to suspend the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq this summer because of fears that the country might return to the levels of violence witnessed last year.
Speaking as a three-day curfew was imposed on Baghdad and as fighting continued for a third successive day in Basra, the US president said there had been gains in Iraq, with overall levels of violence down, but security was fragile.
He would make his decision about more withdrawals from the 154,000-strong US force after speaking next month to the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. But he added: "As I consider the way forward, I will always remember that the progress in Iraq is real, it's substantive, but it is reversible. And so the decision on our troop levels will be ensuring that we succeed in Iraq."
Bush praised as a bold decision the offensive against Shia militias ordered by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shia. "This operation is going to take some time to complete," Bush predicted, though the offensive would demonstrate to Iraqis that no one was above the law.
More than 130 people have been killed and hundreds wounded since the government began its operation on Tuesday, led by 15,000 soldiers from the national army. Tens of thousands of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters marched in Baghdad in a show of force, demanding Maliki's removal.
Last night Sadr called for talks, issuing a statement: "We ask everyone to adopt the [means of] political resolution and peaceful protest. Do not shed Iraqi blood."
But Maliki, previously accused by Iraqi Sunni Muslims of being soft on Shia militias, has vowed to finish the job. He went to Basra to be with forces there, and gave an ultimatum to local Shia militias to surrender their weapons by today. "We entered this battle with determination and we will continue to the end. No retreat. No talks. No negotiations," he said.
However the Mahdi army, the militia nominally loyal to Sadr, retained control of the streets. A Reuters correspondent in Basra said government forces had cordoned off seven districts but were being repelled by Mahdi army fighters inside them.
US troop levels in Iraq fell from a 2003 level of 250,000 to 130,000 early last year before Bush announced a deployment "surge" of an extra 30,000 soldiers to try to stabilise Baghdad and other areas in central Iraq where the fighting was most fierce. Some soldiers have already been withdrawn and at least 14,000 are expected to leave between now and the summer. Petraeus and other commanders want to keep the level at about 140,000 in a "pause", to assess the impact on security before ordering further withdrawals.
Bush claimed that during the past year there had been an overall significant decrease in violence.
© 2008 The Guardian