In Kirkuk, Iraq, a test of U.S. peacekeepers' lasting impact

American forces are about to find out whether their final mission of the eight-year conflict in Iraq -- to quell violence along the disputed, northern Kurd-Arab border -- produced a lasting foothold for peace or will lead to resumed violence when they leave.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:52 PM

IN KIRKUK, IRAQ Mohammad, Mohammud and Adnon - a Kurd, an Arab and a Turkmen - wear different uniforms but ride together patrolling a swath of desert surrounding this ancient, war-torn city.

As their blue, green and sand-colored camouflages suggest, they answer to different authorities, and they disagree over who should run this oil-rich land. But a growing fear unites them: fear of the fast-approaching day when the front men for their patrol - a platoon of U.S. troops - will pack up and leave.

"People will kill each other again. No Iraqi force can control it," said Mohammad Ahmad, 25, a Kurd who has gone out with a Fort Hood-based platoon on joint patrols over the past year.

American forces are about to find out if their final mission of the eight-year conflict in Iraq - to quell violence along the disputed Kurd-Arab border in the country's north - has produced a lasting foothold for peace or will dissolve in the shifting sands of a city older than Iraq itself.

Military commanders plan to soon begin "test cases" of withdrawing U.S. soldiers from checkpoints around Kirkuk. Like troops elsewhere along the "trigger line," which separates land controlled by the national government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdish region, they were deployed here a year ago, largely as a peacekeeping force.

Around Kirkuk, U.S. troops sought to calm tensions between the Iraqi army and the pesh merga - fighters who take their orders from the government in Kurdistan - as well as to hold at bay Islamic extremists seeking to use attacks against both sides to incite a broader conflict.

The effort has led to a precipitous drop in bombings and other attacks in Kirkuk, a melting pot that includes the purported tomb of the biblical prophet Daniel.

But even though U.S. and Iraqi officials exude confidence, it's anyone's guess whether such fragile gains will hold here after American forces leave in the coming months.

A phased withdrawal

The tests will mark the beginning of a roughly nine-month phased withdrawal of American troops that is likely to finish before the Kurds and the Arabs reach permanent - or perhaps even temporary - agreement on how to resolve generations-old land conflicts at the root of many of the violent clashes here.

The former American commander in Iraq who orchestrated the peacekeeping effort, Gen. Ray Odierno, called the Kurd-Arab conflict the top threat to Iraq's stability last year and said a continued international force would probably be critical to the country's security after U.S. troops leave.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad now say that, with the exception of a handful of high-profile attacks, the year of relative calm on the border - stretching from Syria in the west to Iran in the east - along with what they see as the stabilizing effect of the new national unity government, has lessened the threat.

Top U.S. military officials in Iraq, the senior U.N. representative in the country and the outgoing commander of NATO forces here all said in interviews that there is no expectation that an international force will remain.

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