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

By Aaron C. Davis
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.

Ad Melkert, the U.N. secretary general's special representative for Iraq, said he is hopeful that power-sharing in the region can work. Kirkuk's many highly educated Kurdish and Arab leaders seem to realize that they have more to lose through violence than through a political solution to share the city's undertapped oil reserves, he said. Yet Melkert acknowledged that he is uncertain how much can be accomplished before U.S. forces leave.

"It is quite difficult to guess, to assess, what's really going on and what the prospects are for the near future," he said.

Claiming control

Melkert is working to restart high-level negotiations between Kirkuk's surging Kurdish population, which has returned to claim land lost under Saddam Hussein, and its Arabs and Turkmen, who have controlled the city in the decades since the Kurdish population waned. Just getting all sides to the table would be a measurable success, he said.

Progress before U.S. troops leave will be critical. Kirkuk is supposed to participate this year in a repeatedly delayed national census that could determine which ethnicity constitutes a majority in the city.

Under Iraq's constitution, Kirkuk also is required to hold a referendum on whether its residents want to move under Kurdish control. But Kurds and Arabs disagree on who should be counted as residents for either the census or the referendum, and dispensing with tens of thousands of competing land claims that could determine residency could take years.

Melkert and U.S. diplomats are pushing for at least a temporary agreement among Kirkuk's Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians that could set the stage for new regional elections and defuse tensions before a census.

Yet for that tangle of diplomatic and legal efforts to run its course in relative peace, the shared security structure that U.S. troops helped build to protect the million or more inhabitants along the border will have to remain intact.

'They want success'

The U.S. peacekeeping effort around Kirkuk has taken the shape of an egg. Pesh merga fighters have been kept far outside the shell to the north, and Iraqi army brigades, which are mostly Arab in this part of the country, to the south.

In a protective inner ring, soldiers from both those forces as well as local Turkmen police have paired with U.S. platoons for patrols.

American and Iraqi soldiers also staff joint checkpoints on all roads leading into town. Within the city limits, only Kirkuk police - a sometimes volatile mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen - are allowed to operate.

U.S. troops will first leave the checkpoints up to the Iraqi army and then end the roaming joint patrols, U.S. military officials in Kirkuk said.

"They have to want it, and right now they want it - they want success," said Col. Eric Welsh, the top U.S. military official in Kirkuk. He said he is confident that the patchwork of Iraqi forces can maintain the current level of security in the city.

But the Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab soldiers who help in the patrols aren't so sure.

And among the public, there is even greater concern. A recent uptick in kidnappings, which have plagued the city for much of the past eight years, and other violent crimes has fed a perception - especially among Arabs and Turkmen - that security is backsliding, that the police can't be trusted and that deep-seated ethnic conflicts could come roaring back.

Maj. Gen. Turhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef, a Turkmen who is second in command of Kirkuk's police, said he understands and shares the fears.

"I am very worried," he said, "that when America leaves, it will be an exploded time bomb."

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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