WASHINGTON - Vice President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday for a second time this week to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, voicing support for the Baghdad government's effort to regain control of the city of Fallujah from al-Qaida-linked fighters.
The White House said Biden encouraged al-Maliki to continue talks with local, tribal and national leaders and said Biden welcomed al-Maliki's affirmation Wednesday that Iraqi elections will occur as scheduled in April.
The White House said al-Maliki described a series of political initiatives in the embattled Anbar province. Biden endorsed a decision by Iraq's Council of Ministers to provide state benefits to tribal forces killed or injured fighting al-Qaida-linked fighters.
Biden also spoke to al-Maliki on Monday, voicing concern about those suffering from terrorism.
The battle for Fallujah looms large for U.S. troops.
The fighting there began in April 2004 after four security contractors from Blackwater USA were killed and the desecrated bodies of two were hung from a bridge. The so-called second battle of Fallujah occurred seven months later, and for several weeks, Marines went house-to-house in what has been called some of the heaviest urban combat involving the Corps since the Battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. About 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were wounded during the major fighting there.
On Wednesday in San Antonio, Texas, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Iraqi forces are handling the current situation in Fallujah. He said it was never the intent of the United States to stay and defend Iraq forever.
Hagel was asked whether U.S. forces were killed and wounded in Fallujah in vain.
"I don't agree with the analysis that (U.S.) lives were wasted," Hagel said during a visit to Brooke Army Medical Center. "It's just not true."
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry encouraged the Iraqi government to continue efforts to empower local officials and tribes to isolate the al-Qaida fighters and drive them out of populated areas.
"He assured the foreign minister that we will continue to provide technical military advice and enhancing material support and stressed that military efforts must be fused with political and economic efforts to isolate extremist groups," Psaki said.
Psaki said Kerry also told Zebari that having a political system that is inclusive of both Sunni and Shia sects is the only path to long-term stability.
Tensions have been simmering in Iraq since December 2012, when the Sunni community staged protests to denounce what they say is second-class treatments by al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.