In an effort to defuse mounting Arab-Kurdish tensions, the U.S. military is proposing to deploy troops for the first time in a strip of disputed territory in northern Iraq, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno said the proposal would see U.S. troops deployed alongside Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga militiamen on the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the northern province of Nineveh, the scene of several recent high-profile bombings.
Their goal, he said, would be to build trust between Iraqi security forces representing the Baghdad government and Kurdish militia answerable to the Kurdish regional government at a time when an increase in bombings attributed to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq has sent tensions between the two administrations soaring.
"What we have is Al Qaeda exploiting this fissure between Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh . . . and what we're trying to do is close that fissure," the general told journalists at his headquarters at Camp Victory on the edge of Baghdad.
Though the plan is still not finalized, Odierno said that he had discussed it recently with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and with Massoud Barzani, the president of the regional government, and that both had been receptive to the idea.
The push into the area by American forces would not be major, and Odierno said he did not envisage it delaying the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by next August. Because the area is mostly rural, the deployment would probably not violate the terms of the joint security agreement that required U.S. forces to pull out from urban areas by June 30, he said.
"It won't be full-on if we do it. It will just be to build confidence, then we will slowly pull ourselves out," he said. "As we deliberately withdraw our forces, you will see that there will be less forces withdrawn from the north than any other place. It's a recognition of where we think the bigger problem areas are."
The deployment would not come until September or later, when a committee is due to meet to discuss the proposal.
The plan has potential risks, among them that U.S. troops could find themselves bogged down in the region if Kurds and Arabs have not resolved their differences, said Sam Parker, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"Depending on the size and nature of the force involved, this could pose difficulties for U.S. plans to withdraw combat forces by August 2010 and all U.S. forces by the end of 2011," he said.
The status of an arc of territory stretching across Nineveh province, through the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and into the province of Diyala lies at the heart of what has proved the most intractable problem still threatening the stability of northern Iraq.
Kurds claim the territory belongs to their semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and the disintegration of the Iraqi army in 2003, Kurdish peshmerga moved into the area, giving them de facto control. But Arabs claim the territory is theirs, and as the Iraqi government has grown in strength, Arabs increasingly have asserted their claim.
A string of recent bombings targeting the minority Turkmen, Shabak and Yazidi communities has seen the rival sides accuse each other of responsibility. There also have been several tense standoffs between Iraqi security forces and peshmerga along what has been dubbed the "trigger line" marking the divide between Arabs and Kurds.
U.S. commanders fear such incidents could escalate into full-blown conflict if the tensions are allowed to fester. Odierno said the purpose of sending in U.S. forces would be to enable the two sides to learn to work together.
"I think they'd all feel more comfortable with us there," he said.
But there's also a danger that the presence of U.S. troops will provide a disincentive to the parties to find a political solution to their differences, said Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
"As a short-term measure, it's very good, because it shows American commitment to addressing this issue," he said. "In the longer term, it could make the parties more dependent on the U.S. at a time when the U.S. is planning to withdraw. It shouldn't be a substitute for U.S. diplomatic pressure to find a political solution to the problem of the trigger line."
In the meantime, Iraq's government is pressing ahead with a referendum on the security agreement that could force U.S. troops to leave Iraq sooner than expected. The Iraqi Cabinet finalized a draft law establishing the mechanisms for the referendum to be held Jan. 16, the same day as national elections, according to a statement by government spokesman Ali Dabbagh.
The referendum, promised as part of a deal sealing the legislature's approval of the agreement in December, was delayed until the same day as the January vote to save effort and money.
If voters reject the security agreement, U.S. forces will have one year to pull out of Iraq, which means they would have to be gone by January 2011, 11 months earlier than anticipated.