PRESIDENT Bush's assertion that the Iraqi army's attack on militias in Basra would be a defining moment is likely to prove true, but probably not in the way he intended. After four days it is already clear that eliminating the so-called Mahdi Army loyal to the influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will not be an easy task; even if it is ultimately achieved in Basra the more powerful and disciplined part of the Mahdi Army will be waiting in Baghdad to take revenge on prime minister al-Maliki for the military operation in Basra.
It will be surprising if Iraq does not lapse into factional fighting once more.
MEANWHILE, it is difficult to see what purpose the British army is serving at its base outside Basra. Since the Iraq government has taken full responsibility for planning and implementing the attack on Basra there is no reason for Britain to become involved, whatever the outcome. This could therefore be the right moment to announce firm plans for the withdrawal of all 4'000 British troops from Iraq and, at least initially, their redeployment in Afghanistan where there remains a real job to be done.
Doubtless, any such move would be criticised as a retreat under fire but the reality is that Britain has ceased to have any significant military role to play in Iraq and the sooner the implications of that fact are recognised and acted upon the better.