President Obama and embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed Friday to coordinate on reviving the "Sons of Iraq" Sunni militias to counter a growing Al Qaeda insurgency as part of an overall effort to bolster the Shiite-led Baghdad government.
U.S. and Iraq officials said in a joint statement that Maliki's forces would stress "security operations coordinated with local officials, and renewed efforts to empower local security structures, such as the Sons of Iraq, to mitigate extremist infiltration." The statement was issued after Maliki's meeting with Obama.
The Sons of Iraq were local militias recruited by tribal sheikhs and paid by the U.S. Many considered the Sons of Iraq as a major factor in the success of the U.S. troop surge in 2007 in beating back Al Qaeda insurgents in Anbar province and other Sunni majority areas.
The two sides also agreed to press ahead with a major arms package for Iraq to include attack helicopters to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
While backing the arms deal, Obama called on Maliki to mend fences with the restive Sunni and Kurd minorities, and to assure the path to national elections scheduled for next April despite a terror campaign that the United Nations estimated has killed at least 7,000 in Iraq this year.
Obama hosted Maliki in the Oval Office nearly two years after the last U.S. combat soldier left Iraq at Maliki's insistence following more than eight years of war that killed nearly 4,500 U.S. troops, wounded more than 30,000, and cost more than $800 billion.
"We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against that terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq, but also poses a threat to the entire region and to the United States," Obama said.
Obama also called on Maliki to work for political reform "to ensure that all people inside of Iraq -- Sunni, Shia and Kurd -- feel that they have a voice in their government. And one of the most important expressions of that will be elections next year."
Speaking through a translator, Maliki stressed his "common vision" with the U.S. on the way forward for Iraq despite major past differences on the U.S. presence in the region and Syria.
The U.S. and Iraq were especially in sync "when it comes to diagnosing the return of terrorism and we talked about how to counter terrorism," Maliki said.
"We discussed details of our cooperation," Maliki said without giving specifics. "What we want is for Iraq and the region to be able to work together, and we are working at the security, intelligence and social and all levels in order to counteract terrorism."
Maliki also did not give details on how he intends to heal the rifts with the Sunni and Kurd communities.
"We do know that the democratic experience in Iraq is nascent and fragile, but it was born very strong," said Maliki, who pledged to hold national elections on schedule next April, when he was expected to run for a third term as prime minister.
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