WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top commander in Iraq said on Wednesday that U.S. forces in the volatile north would probably be the last to leave the country at the end of 2011, acknowledging Arab-Kurdish disputes were unlikely to be settled before that time despite signs of progress last year.
General Ray Odierno has singled out ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq as the biggest single threat to the country’s stability.
He said the United States remained on track to draw down its forces in Iraq to 50,000 by September 1, when Washington will formally end combat operations, but U.S. forces in the northern city of Kirkuk will remain in place and “probably be one of the last units to leave Iraq ... by the end of 2011.”
Odierno’s warnings about the north reflect growing U.S. doubts about prospects for a breakthrough between Arabs and Kurds any time soon. Washington fears an outbreak of violence between them in the area could tip Iraq back into war.
During a visit to Kirkuk in December, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had voiced confidence Arab and Kurdish leaders were moving toward settling their differences.
But Odierno, speaking to reporters in Washington, said: “We have not solved the problems of the disputed areas. That’s a problem that has to be dealt with in the future.”
“Do I think it’s going to be done by the end of 2011?” he said, referring to the date when U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country. “No, I don‘t.”
“We have to transition this so when we leave in 2011 there is a force there that continues to build the confidence and reduce tensions,” he added.
To that end, the U.S. military is training Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi army troops, and wants to “merge them to become a force that’s trusted by the population, that’s representative of the population, that will sustain security once we leave,” Odierno said.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad would command and control the joint force.
Kurds see Kirkuk, and the surrounding province which produces a fifth of Iraq’s oil, as their ancestral home and want it wrapped into their semi-autonomous northern enclave. The city’s Arab and Turkmen populations oppose those aims.
As the United States surges forces into the war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, its troop presence in Iraq has dropped sharply from 145,000 in January 2009 to about 70,000 today.
Odierno brushed aside concerns that drawing down to 50,000 by September will put the country’s security at risk, voicing confidence that Iraq’s own security forces “can handle the level of violence, can handle al Qaeda, with our help.”
Odierno said 50,000 was “a significant number,” adding: “If we need to do something, we have the capability to do that.”
To ensure stability after September, he said the United States would maintain the 50,000-troop level through the summer of 2011, when an assessment will be made about getting them out by the end of 2011.
Odierno said Iraq’s problems were now “largely economic.”
Reducing the level of violence further will require “economic growth, job development -- good solid jobs -- and political movement toward ... reconciliation,” he said.
Cash-strapped Iraq has signed contracts with global oil firms to develop its giant oilfields but Odierno said those deals will not fully “kick in for 3 to 5 years.”
“They’ll gain a little bit each year but nothing significant,” Odierno said. “But by ‘13 or ‘14, if things go well, they then should be producing enough oil where they will be able to be what I consider to be solvent.”
U.S. officials say solvency will enable Iraq to build up its military, and Odierno voiced confidence the projected increase in oil revenues starting in 2013 would enable Iraq to afford an initial purchase of 18 F-16 fighter aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Odierno made clear he supports the sale: “If they’re going to buy multiple aircraft, I’d rather have them buy F-16s.”
Iraq’s Air Force is on record as hoping to buy up to 96 F-16s through 2020, the centerpiece of billions of dollars that Baghdad may spend on foreign arms in coming years.
Editing by Patricia Wilson and Todd Eastham