By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009 10:04 AM
BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq announced Monday that he would like to station American troops along disputed areas in northern Iraq to build rapport between Iraqi government troops and those under the command of the autonomous Kurdish government.
Gen. Ray Odierno said Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Kurdish officials and provincial officials have been receptive to the idea, which could be implemented this fall.
The plan comes amid rising violence in northern Iraq's disputed areas, which has heightened tension between the Baghdad government and Kurdish officials. Scores of Iraqis have been killed in bombings in the region in recent weeks.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Sunni extremists are exploiting the friction between Kurds and Arabs along the disputed areas to consolidate their foothold in northern Iraq.
The deployment of U.S. troops to disputed areas would be a temporary "confidence building measure," Odierno said. It would mark a departure from the withdrawal plan outlined in the security agreement, which called for the pullout of American troops from populated areas by June 30.
"I think they all just feel more comfortable if we're there," Odierno said.
Several villages in the disputed areas are patrolled by the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish government's militia, even though they are nominally outside the autonomous region.
Iraqi army soldiers and Pesh Merga troops have come close to armed conflict in recent months as Baghdad officials have deployed more troops to northern Iraq in an effort to curb Kurdish expansion.
American officials have come to see the rising tension along the 300-mile frontier as the most potentially destabilizing conflict in Iraq. An armed confrontation, they fear, could unleash a civil war as U.S. troops draw down in the months ahead.
Odierno said a committee that includes top officials from Baghdad and the Kurdish government will convene next month to discuss the plan.
He said that the plan would not fundamentally alter the withdrawal timetable but that a greater percentage of the dwindling U.S. force is likely to be stationed in northern Iraq.
The 130,000-strong force is expected to decrease to 50,000 by next August, and all U.S. troops are supposed to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.