KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday that Arab and Kurdish leaders in Iraq were moving toward settling their differences and he urged them to form an inclusive government quickly after a March vote.
Visiting U.S. troops and Iraqi police in the contested northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Gates called Arab-Kurdish tensions “perhaps the most worrisome issue in Iraq.”
Washington fears an outbreak of violence between the groups in the area could tip Iraq back into war.
But Gates, who arrived in Iraq on Thursday after a visit to Afghanistan, said: “All the evidence we see indicates that they will work out these differences.”
“They’ve made some real headway in recent weeks.”
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 fiercely oppose those aims.
Tensions between ethnic groups in the north are often exploited by insurgents including al Qaeda, blamed for bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday that police said killed 112 people.
Gates said he spoke with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad earlier in the day about the need to form an inclusive government swiftly after national elections in March to minimize the risk of a return to sectarian bloodshed.
Strong leadership was needed in the run-up to the poll to prevent al Qaeda from disrupting them, Gates told Maliki, and said any delay in forming a new government could create a “period of vulnerability,” according to Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s press secretary.
Violence has dipped sharply in Iraq over the past 18 months but the recent bombings have stoked doubts about the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace before the elections.
Gates expressed confidence that U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce troops by next summer would stay on track despite the delayed election and Tuesday’s attack. But Washington’s role was likely to continue, he said.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a ‘train, equip and advise’ role beyond the end of 2011,” Gates said. “They realize that they’re probably not going to be ready.”
U.S. officials said the advisory roles would be related to the Iraqi air force, which will take many years to build up.
Gates and Maliki had been scheduled to meet on Thursday night but the prime minister instead went to parliament to answer questions from lawmakers about the bombings and efforts to improve security.
Bombings in Baghdad have become less frequent but attacks remain common in disputed areas like Kirkuk, where Gates met Arab and Kurdish policemen and U.S. troops who lead joint patrols in the city.
There have been standoffs between Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi troops. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has singled out the tensions as the biggest single threat to stability.
Washington has been trying to broker security pacts between Maliki and the Kurdish region’s president Masoud Barzani. Those may include joint patrols in disputed areas to build confidence.
Disagreements between Iraq’s factions held up parliamentary passage of a law needed for the election, originally slated for January, to take place. The presidency council said this week the poll, Iraq’s first since 2005, would take place on March 7.
“We believe American commitments to support us are far more important than one or two more or less seats (in parliament),” Barzani said in a statement after meeting Gates in Arbil.
Gates told Barzani the United States was committed to “Kurdish security, prosperity and autonomy within a unified Iraq,” according to Morrell.
“We will not abandon you,” Gates said.
Kurds fear that a nationalist Arab government in Baghdad might try to curtail the virtual independence they have enjoyed since shortly after the 1991 Gulf War after the U.S. withdrawal.
Obama is aiming to end combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010, before a full pullout by the end of 2011. The U.S. force in Iraq is supposed to be reduced to 50,000 by end of August from around 115,000 now.
Editing by Michael Christie and Ralph Boulton