Protecting a "volatile area": Iraq’s oldest oil processing plant in the northern Iraqi town of Baba Gurgur, outside Kirkuk.

By Michael Christie

The U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Monday he had proposed setting up security teams formed of Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces to protect volatile areas disputed by Kurds and Arabs from insurgent attacks.

The idea, which might require a modification of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact to allow U.S. troops to return to towns and villages, had met with a positive response from the Baghdad government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north, Gen. Ray Odierno said.

The tripartite arrangement, if approved, would be "a little bit" like a U.S. peacekeeping mission between the rival forces as they face off in a potentially explosive dispute over land, power and oil, Odierno said.

"It won’t be for long. If we do it it’ll be just to build confidence in the (Iraqi and Kurdish) forces, till they are comfortable working together."

Devastating bombings have killed scores in the north since U.S. forces pulled out of Iraqi cities at the end of June, triggering accusations of blame between Arabs and Kurds, and fuelling tensions between the KRG and the now Shi’ite Muslim-led government in Baghdad.

The north is dotted with areas that Kurds claims as their ancestral lands, including the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields and several towns near Mosul.

Sunni militant group Al Qaeda appeared to be taking advantage of the fissures between the two sides to attack largely unprotected towns and villages near Mosul in an effort to spark violence between Arabs and Kurds, Odierno said.

Kurd-Arab tensions are viewed as a next potential flashpoint for broader conflict in Iraq following a sharp decline in the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites that was set off by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Odierno said that if given approval to deploy tripartite forces in disputed areas, most of the work would be carried out by Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. U.S. troops would largely play a supervisory role.

"We’re not making any decision that this disputed territory belongs to the KRG or it belongs to the government of Iraq," he said.


The Iraqi government may have to grant U.S. troops an exemption from the bilateral security agreement under which U.S. troops retreated to rural bases at the end of June and which sets an end-2011 deadline for a full U.S. withdrawal, he said.

Odierno said he had discussed his proposal with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani and both had asked him to have a look at the idea. A committee would start discussing the proposal next month.

"I have been encouraged. I didn’t sense any initial resistance to having joint trilateral checkpoints, Iraqi army, KRG and U.S. soldiers in oversight," he said.

"Some of this (tension) is people blaming different people and frankly this will also help with that problem as we’ll all be in there together. We can’t blame one side or the other side for why these attacks occurred."