America's top commander in Iraq said Monday he wants to deploy U.S. soldiers alongside Iraqi and Kurdish troops in a disputed swath of northern territory following a series of horrific bombings by insurgents hoping to stoke an Arab-Kurdish conflict.
The move would be a departure from the security pact that called for Americans to pull back from populated areas on June 30. But Gen. Ray Odierno warned that al-Qaida in Iraq was exploiting tensions between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, to carry out attacks on villages not guarded by either side. The bombings have killed scores of people since Aug. 7.
The U.S. soldiers would act in an oversight role to help the troops work together to secure areas along a fault line of land claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, Odierno said, stressing no final decision had been made.
"It won't be for long if we do it. It'll be just to build confidence in the forces so they're comfortable working together, then we'll slowly pull ourselves out," Odierno told reporters during a briefing at the U.S. military headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad. "I think they just all feel more comfortable if we're there initially."
Odierno said he had met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier Monday and found him receptive to the idea.
Several top defense officials have identified the split between Iraq's majority Arabs and the Kurdish minority as a greater long-term threat to Iraq's stability than the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to the Kurdish self-rule area in the north late last month to tell both sides they need to resolve their differences before U.S. troops leave.
At the heart of the dispute is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as well as villages in Ninevah province that the Kurds want to incorporate into their semiautonomous area despite opposition from Arabs and minority Turkomen ethnic group.
"We have al-Qaida exploiting this fissure that you're seeing between Arabs and Kurds," Odierno said. "What we're trying to do is close that fissure."
He said al-Qaida was targeting minorities, small towns that don't have a police force and other so-called soft targets to avoid heavy security concentrated in more central areas.
The Kurdish peshmerga have set up checkpoints on the outskirts of such villages and small towns to provide at least some security. The overstretched Iraqi security forces stay out of these areas altogether, partly to avoid antagonizing the Kurds.
Odierno said the deployment of the U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish protection forces would start in Ninevah province, which includes the volatile city of Mosul, and then extend to Kirkuk and to Diyala province north of the capital.
He did not say how many U.S. troops would be sent to the disputed territories but pointed out that the Americans still have a lot of forces that have been pulled back to large bases near Mosul and other cities.
"I'm still very confident in the overall security here," Odierno said. "Unfortunately they're killing a lot of innocent civilians."
Nevertheless, U.S. forces have never had a heavy presence in the villages outside Mosul, and the move to establish a presence signals a more pessimistic outlook about security in the region.
Neither al-Maliki nor his spokesman could be reached for comment because they were traveling to Syria to discuss the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq.
The general, however, said he has discussed the idea with al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi and Kurdish officials and planned another high-level meeting in early September.
"Having met with all these leaders, I think there is room to work this out," he said.
Kurdish leaders and a senior Iraqi lawmaker said they supported the plan.
"This is a type of solution for the tense situation in the disputed territories between Kurds and Arabs," said Hassan al-Sineid, a Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki.
Underscoring the tensions, the Ninevah provincial governor said he would welcome the Americans and Iraqi forces — but not the Kurds.
"But since the Kurdish officials object to this idea, then I think there is no need for joint forces in these areas," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, a hardline Sunni who was chosen in provincial elections that ousted the Kurds from a ruling position. "The U.S. soldiers could help turn these places into neutral zones."
The move to deploy U.S. troops there would represent a step back from a security pact that called for Americans to withdraw from populated areas — including cities, villages and localities — by June 30.
Odierno did not expect the decision to affect the overall timeline, which calls for U.S. combat forces to leave the country by the end of August 2010 and a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. He said the pullout would be slower in the north than in other parts of the country.
Iraq's government, meanwhile, approved a draft law paving the way for a referendum on the security pact that lays out the U.S. withdrawal timeline to be held simultaneously with national parliamentary elections on Jan. 16, spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. The measure still needs to be approved by Iraq's parliament, which is in recess until next month.
Iraqi lawmakers agreed to the security pact last November after months of bitter negotiations. But it included the caveat that the deal should go before voters in a referendum to be held by July 30 — a concession to opponents who argued that Americans should leave immediately after the Dec. 31 expiration of a U.N. mandate for foreign forces.
The government said earlier this year that to save time and money, it wanted the referendum to be held on the same day as the national elections.
That raised the possibility that a majority of Iraqis could reject the deal, forcing the U.S. military to withdraw by January 2010. But many Iraqis said Monday that the referendum was being held too late to make a difference.