Bush Says Basra Fight 'Defining Moment,' Calls for Chinese-Tibet Meetings

President Bush and visiting Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called jointly Friday for China's leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama over violent unrest in Tibet.

Bush also said a flare up in violence in oil-rich southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad presents "a defining moment in the history of Iraq" as the government there seeks to rout out Shiite militias.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference after talks at the White House, they called for Beijing to use restraint in dealing with Tibetans protesting Chinese rule. "It is absolutely clear that there are human rights abuses in Tibet," said Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat in Beijing. "It's clear-cut; we need to be upfront and absolutely straight about what's going on."

Bush said he told Chinese President Hu Jintao this week that "it's in his country's interest" that top Chinese leaders meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

"We urge restraint," Bush said, adding that he appreciated Rudd's "view and advice on dealing with this issue."

The leaders were trying to strike a delicate balance on China, voicing displeasure with Beijing's crackdown without alienating a crucial economic and political partner.

Rudd, who wants stronger economic ties with Beijing, said leaders should not "shilly-shally" in their assessment of abuse by China in Tibet and surrounding regions. He said he would raise the matter during his visit to China next month.

Both Rudd and Bush recognize that they need China, a growing military and economic powerhouse in Asia and a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council. Rudd is eager to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia's most important trading partner, while Bush is counting on China for help in dealing with North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.

Rudd is seen in Washington as a "solidly pro-U.S. alliance figure," said Michael Green, Bush's former senior adviser on Asia.

"The one area where people have raised eyebrows about Rudd is on China policy," said Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "When he's here, he's going to want to make it clear that the U.S. alliance remains the bedrock and Australia is not going wobbly on China."

Rudd has said disagreement over Tibet would not stand in the way of Australia's economic relations with China, which has shown a strong demand for Australia's natural resources. Rudd says he will urge Chinese officials to step up their negotiating efforts on a free trade agreement.

The Tibet protests, led by monks, began peacefully March 10, on the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Tibet had been effectively independent for decades before Chinese communist troops entered in 1950. Beijing says 22 people have died in this month's protests; Tibetan exiles say almost 140 are dead.

Iraq, Afghanistan

Bush also praised Australia's efforts in Afghanistan, and said he understood Rudd's decision to withdraw 550 combat troops from Iraq. Australia says hundreds of others will stay in Iraq in supporting roles.

Bush said the push in Iraq to oust Al Qaeda from Basra and beyond is "going to take awhile, but it's a necessary part of the development of a free society." At the same time, the president said the situation in Iraq remains "dangerous and fragile."

His comments followed U.S. airstrikes in both the southern city of Basra and in a Shiite militia stronghold in Baghdad. The renewed violence came as tensions rose among followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr angry over a crackdown that has threatened to unravel a militia cease-fire.

"Basra has been a place where criminality has thrived," Bush said. "They are fighting some pretty tough characters... and yes, there's going to be violence, and that's sad."

He said the resurgent violence would not alter his determination to continue his administration's mission there.

"Any government that presumes to represent the majority of people must confront criminal elements or people who think they can live outside the law. That's what's taking place in Basra and other parts of Iraq," Bush said. "I would say this is a defining moment in the history of Iraq."

"There have been other defining moments up to now, but this is a defining moment, as well," Bush said. He said the decision to move troops into Basra was testimony to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's leadership capabilities.

"This is a good test for them," the president said.

"I'm confident we can succeed unless we lose our nerve," he added. "It's going to take a while for them to deal with these elements. "

Bush also suggested that his Iraq policy was working because "troops are coming out."

The new Australian prime minister campaigned on a theme of withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq. Bush brought up Rudd's Iraq stance himself in his opening remarks.

Asking and answering his own question, Bush said he expected a journalist to ask him, "Aren't you mad at the prime minister for fulfilling his campaign pledge? The answer is no."

"I always like to be in the presence of somebody who does what he says he's going to do ... Here's a guy who meant it ... He consulted closely with his friends. His military commanders consulted closely with our military commanders," Bush said.

The president noted, however, that Australia continues to have troops in Afghanistan and is helping to train Iraqi farmers in dry-land farming.

For his part, Rudd said, "We're in Afghanistan for the long haul."

Bush said that close U.S.-Australian ties will continue under new Rudd's leadership. Rudd said Australia intends to be in Afghanistan for "the long haul."

Australian officials have been keen to note that the Iraq withdrawal will not hurt the relationship with the United States, which they have called indispensable to Australian security.

Still, Rudd has distanced his government from the pro-U.S. policies of his immediate predecessor, John Howard, who celebrated his close friendship with Bush. Rudd's first official act as leader was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol global warming pact, leaving Washington isolated as a holdout among developed nations.

Rudd has said he hopes Washington would follow his lead and sign the pact. Bush has said the accord would harm the U.S. economy.