US troops start joint operations in Iraq's disputed zones

BAGHDAD, Arthur MacMillan - US troops have started joint operations with Iraqi forces both Arab and Kurdish in disputed northern zones aiming to boost trust and reduce tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, the army said Tuesday.
The deal marks a new chapter in the US military's role since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and could once again see them involved in full-scale operations in urban areas.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, in Arbil
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, in Arbil
General Ray Odierno, the top US officer in Iraq, told reporters that joint training began three weeks ago in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala provinces and about 70 percent of the tripartite force's checkpoints had been set up.
"By January 31, they will all be manned and we will begin joint security patrols," he said, without specifying how many American soldiers had deployed alongside Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga (former rebel) fighters.
"It is about protecting the population... who have been targets of Al-Qaeda and others who are trying to exploit political differences."
There are 15 disputed zones in Iraq, including all of the oil-rich Kirkuk province, large parts of Nineveh, and two districts in Diyala.
Odierno first raised the prospect of joint operations in August, arguing that insurgents were taking advantage of poor cooperation between the mostly Arab Iraqi army and Kurdish security forces to launch attacks.
"I have been very pleased with how it has gone so far. Cooperation has been very, very good," he said on Tuesday. "There'll be some political challenges but we will work our way through it."
Kurdish leaders want their autonomous region, which currently consists of three distinct provinces, to be expanded into historically Kurdish-inhabited parts of Nineveh and Diyala as well as all of Kirkuk.
The central government in Baghdad, however, says the Kurdish region's borders should not extend past its existing provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk.
Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga have clashed several times in the past two years as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's troops have tried to bolster their presence in and around Iraq's disputed areas.
Nineveh, a Sunni Arab stronghold, and Kirkuk, which has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and some Christians, are major flashpoints.
Thousands of Kurds -- who were deported by Saddam Hussein to make way for mainly Sunni Arabs -- have returned to Kirkuk and built homes since the dictator's overthrow.
Hussein Ali Juburi, a Sunni Arab member of Kirkuk provincial council, objected to the joint patrols.
"The peshmerga is an armed force designed for the Kurdish region and their presence in Kirkuk will be divisive," he said.
Abdullah Sami Assi, another Sunni Arab member of the council, added: "There is no justification for this and it will have negative results."
However, Mohammed Kamal, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) wing of the council, said the joint force was good news. "It will help in stabilising security and eliminate terrorism," he said.
The US military, which presently has 107,000 troops in Iraq, believes that tension between Sunni Arabs and Kurds is the main driver of instability in the country and a major threat to its long-term future.
Odierno held discussions with Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani, whose approval was needed for the joint force.
US combat troops exited Iraq's cities, towns and villages in June last year and are scheduled to leave completely by August. All American soldiers must withdraw from the country by the end of 2011 under a landmark security agreement signed between Baghdad and Washington.
Odierno did not reveal the conditions for establishing the new force but has previously said the need for US soldiers to be stationed in villages in the disputed zones could require an exception to the existing security accord.

Wednesday, January 27th 2010
Arthur MacMillan

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