Prime Minister Maliki has formed a committee to focus on the vetting process of Iraqi tribal leaders and groups the US has begun arming as the latest strategy to develop a broad-based alliance on the ground in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revealed while speaking to media at the Pentagon Thursday.
When asked if the US was arming elements that had previously attacked American forces, and how that possibility was being vetted, Gates replied:
"I defer those decisions to the commanders on the ground and the embassy and the Iraqi government.... Prime Minister Maliki raised this with me, and clearly they're concerned, and he's appointed a committee to work this issue and be a part of the vetting process."
Maliki's displeasure with the new US strategy has been widely reported this week, but Gates' comment offers the first glimpse of the kind of concession the US is making to secure the cooperation of the Iraqi government.
US leaders worried the new strategy might falter without Maliki's support, particularly after his aide told the media earlier this week that the prime minister had given orders for Iraqi security forces to treat the U.S.-armed groups as "outlaws".
Maliki, a Shiite, voiced his opposition to the program directly to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the Multinational Force-Iraq, according to Sami al Askari, a close advisor to Maliki.
"It's a sort of militia, when we are trying to get rid of the current militias," Askari said. "By arming these tribes, we'll make it worse."
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, acknowledged that the government was worried about the plan.
"Sure, they are concerned," he said. "They want to make sure that we are not forming a Sunni militia that will fight the government."