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U.S. military boss urges Iraq to settle differences

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - The top U.S. military commander urged rival factions in Iraq’s disputed city of Kirkuk, the heart of a bitter feud over land and oil, to reconcile ahead of the coming U.S. military withdrawal.

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Sandstorms grounded Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, after he touched down on Monday in Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, and delayed his plans to travel to other parts of Iraq.

Mullen met with political leaders from Kirkuk, the oil-producing region at the center of a conflict that is seen as the biggest threat to Iraqi stability just as the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 invasion subsides.

“The political challenges that remain in Iraq are ... very central to this region,” Mullen said after meeting Arab, Kurd, Turkmen and Christian leaders in central Kirkuk.

“My message to them today was: we’re leaving and you’d better figure it out,” he told reporters accompanying him.

Kirkuk, like several other ethnically mixed areas, remains riven by violence as conditions in much of Iraq improve.

Police say Kirkuk attacks, including two bombs last month that killed 100 people between them, may have stoked reprisals.

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Kurds want to fold the northern region, which U.S. officials say could hold as much as 4 percent of world oil reserves, into their northern enclave. Turkmen and Arabs strenuously object.

The United States is hoping local security forces can rein in attacks as U.S. combat forces take an increasingly secondary role. On June 30, U.S. combat troops pulled out of city and town centres, a milestone in the plan to remove U.S. troops by 2012.

As Washington focuses more resources on the war in Afghanistan, the government of U.S. President Barack Obama is goading Iraq to do more to reconcile divided factions.

That has prompted an increasingly indignant response from the government of Shi’ite Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose spokesman rebuffed outside involvement in Iraqi affairs after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden offered U.S. help in reconciliation during a visit this month.

Mullen reiterated the Obama administration’s plans to draw down forces in Iraq, saying the force which currently stands at around 130,000 would shrink rapidly after Iraq’s national elections in January.

Mullen’s visit was not the first by a U.S. official to be hampered by dust recently. One of the worst storms in living memory, a week long, impeded Biden’s planned Kurdistan trip.

Reporting by Andrew Gray; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Sophie Hares

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