Kurdish officials convey different points of views regarding Gen. Ray Odierno’s suggestion that UN peacekeeping forces may be needed in the areas disputed between Kurds and Arabs when US forces leave Iraq.
Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, said a UN force would benefit the Iraqi leadership and the American, with President Obama needing to withdraw US troops to a timetable while also avoiding the deterioration of ethnic relations in the region, which many fear could lead to war.
Some Kurds agree with Odierno’s perspective and see the deployment of a UN force as a sensible way to avoid conflict and tension, while others believe that the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga can keep the disputed areas stable on their own.
Kirkuk province is one of the richest in the country in terms of oil and control over it is one of the main disputes between Kurds and Arabs. The governor of the province, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, said Odierno’s suggestion should be studied very carefully and implemented if it is in the interests of the Kirkuk’s people. he added that he believed that local forces are strong enough to keep the province safe.
‘’I don’t think Kirkuk will witness any conflict between Kurds and Arabs after the withdrawal of US forces,“ he said.
“The current security forces – the police, the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga – can keep the province safe and prevent the build-up of any ethnic tension.”
The governor admitted that the province does have problems but in comparison with preceding years, there are far fewer, particularly between the competing ethnic groups.
A security agreement between the US government and their Iraqi counterparts dictates that all American forces should have left the country by the end of 2011 at the very latest. The gradual withdrawal of troops is due to begin in August this year.
Currently, around 77,500 US troops are stationed in Iraq. It is widely believed that Iraq’s leaders may ask the US government to leave some troops behind to continue to help support and train Iraq’s security forces to make them better able to deal with any future crises.
In all of Iraq’s disputed territories joint forces composed of American, Iraqi and Kurdish troops protect the population from insurgent attacks and from inter-ethnic tension between Kurds and Arabs.
Gen. Odierno was also behind the establishment of these joint forces. He believed that the joint forces would help to build trust between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga by forcing the two to work together on a daily basis.
Joint force checkpoints came into operation in January 2010 much to the approval of Kurdish leaders. Some Arab officials are less happy, however, believing that the joint forces have an underhand aim of helping to cement divides between Arabs and Kurds, even at the expense of better security.
Perhaps the most vulnerable of the disputed areas is around Nineveh. Tension between Arabs and Kurds there is heightened, with the current provincial administration, which is dominated by Arabs, refusing to give any of the key administrative positions to Kurds, despite Kurdish parties winning over a third of the vote in recent provincial elections.
Harem Kamal Agha, a prominent Kurdish politician in Nineveh province, is worried that after the US withdrawal clashes will occur between Kurds and Arabs.
“It is true that now there are joint checkpoints between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga, but maybe after the US withdrawal, some political decisions will force them to face each other,” said Agha who is head of the Patriotic Union Kurdistan headquarters in Nineveh.
He believes that international peacekeeping forces are crucial for the disputed areas until Iraq becomes a good democratic country.
Agha praised Gen. Odierno. He said Gen. Odierno has a healthy opinion regarding the Iraqi security situation.
‘’It was Gen. Odierno who suggested that the joint forces be established in the disputed areas, and in the beginning many Arab politicians rejected the idea. But now we all see that it was a great idea,” he said.
Agha stated that if Iraqi government does want international forces in the disputed area, it should implement Article 140.
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution says the situation in the disputed areas must be normalised, then a referendum should be conducted so that the people in the disputed areas decide themselves whether they want to be part of the Kurdistan Region or to be under the control of the Baghdad administration.
After Gen. Odierno suggested UN forces for the disputed areas, some Arab politicians suggested that instead Iraqi forces should take charge of security in the disputed areas. The Kurds strongly reject this idea because the army is dominated by Arabs.
Despite the war of words between the Kurdish and Arab politicians, some Kurdish and Arab citizens in the disputed areas believe the two groups can live together peacefully and they do not believe that any tension will happen between them.
In Makhmur district, Nineveh province, the majority of the people believe no war or any kind of clashes will happen between Kurds and Arabs.
“We can’t live without each other. We do business together and we have such strong relations with each other. It’s the politicians that never let us just be comfortable,” said Ashad Abdullah, an Arab, in Makhmur where a very mixed ethnic district.
Perhaps economics will be the bind between the two groups that keeps tension to a minimum after the withdrawal of American troops. However, whether the joint operations between Kurdish and Iraqi forces continue or whether a UN force is charged with the responsibility, a plan for continuing to uphold security in the region urgently needs to be put into place.
Ako Muhammad from Kirkuk contributed to this article.