WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his frequent parliamentary critic, in a show of U.S. angst about escalating, al-Qaida-linked violence in Iraq two years after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq.
As al-Maliki was urging residents of Fallujah to expel al-Qaida fighters or face all-out battle, Biden lent his support to Iraq's fight against the local al-Qaida branch, and said he was concerned about those suffering from terrorism. He spoke positively about recent cooperation between Iraq's military and tribal forces in Anbar, on the Syrian border, where al-Qaida fighters are among the most formidable trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
"Prime Minister Maliki affirmed the importance of working closely with Iraq's Sunni leaders and communities to isolate extremists," the White House said in a statement.
With the U.S. concerned about the sectarian nature of the growing violence, Biden also spoke with Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader and frequent critic of al-Maliki's Shiite-led government. The two discussed ways to sustain cooperation between Sunni communities and the Shiite-led government, and al-Nujaifi said he was committed to fighting terrorism, the White House said.
For Biden, who was President Barack Obama's point-man on the Iraq war, the phone calls reflected the unpleasant reality that two years after American forces departed, violence tied to religious extremism in Iraq has spiked. Late last year, al-Maliki came to the Oval Office requesting weapons and intelligence help to fight insurgents but left without any new announcement by Obama.
Meanwhile, the White House has come under criticism in the U.S. by those who question whether Iraq would be better off today had the U.S. left a military presence in Iraq, as it is attempting to do in Afghanistan while it winds down its war there.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney pushed back, saying such violence in Iraq took place even when there were 150,000 U.S. troops there. He said the U.S. can assist, and will deliver more missiles and surveillance drones to Iraq this year, but insisted Iraq must take the lead.
"If members (of Congress) were suggesting that there should be American troops fighting and dying in Fallujah today, they should say so," Carney said. "The president doesn't believe that."