KIRKUK (Reuters) - U.S. Colonel Ryan Gonsalves’ soldiers were already on their way to their new post in Baghdad when he got news his brigade was being diverted to Iraq’s tense city of Kirkuk.
The last-minute decision in January to more than double to 5,000 the number of U.S. soldiers in Kirkuk was prompted by tensions that many fear could ignite broader conflict in Iraq just as the sectarian killing of the last six years subsides.
The U.S. buildup in Kirkuk coincided with a misunderstanding that led to rumors that both Kurdish forces and Iraqi troops had gone on alert, and were potentially mobilizing against each other. The situation was defused, but it left an impression.
The U.S. mission in Kirkuk now centers on building trust. “Odierno decided the most dangerous course of action would be if violence incites itself between those ethnic groups,” Gonsalves said of General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
The future of Kirkuk hangs in the balance as Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen vie for control of a region with major historical importance and sits on as much as 4 percent of the world’s oil.
Iraq’s minority Kurds, who were killed by the thousands by former Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein, claim Kirkuk as part of their largely autonomous northern region.
But Kirkuk’s Turkmen and Arabs object, and complain about heavy-handed discriminatory tactics since Kurds gained control of the local government after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Wednesday, the United Nations handed over a new report on Kirkuk that it hopes will encourage a settlement between rival political and ethnic factions.
The report lands in an environment of tension and mistrust, reflecting larger questions dogging Iraq’s fledgling democracy: How powerful should the central government be? What military role should minority players like the Kurds have?
U.S. soldiers in Kirkuk are seeking to foster communication between Kurdish troops and the Iraqi Army there, which is 85 percent Arab. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Arab, says weapons should be in the hands of the state alone.
The formation last year of the 12th Iraqi Army Division in Kirkuk was met with alarm by the smaller 10th Kurdish Army Brigade, stationed in the northern parts of the province.
Since 2003, Kurdish Peshmerga have deployed in different parts of Iraq, even reaching Baghdad.
Heading the new Iraqi Army unit is Major General Abdul Amir Zaidi, an Arab who Kurds view with suspicion since he was stationed around the same area under Saddam.
“Our job is to protect Kirkuk from terrorists,” said one Iraqi Army official in Kirkuk, asking to go unnamed.
Major Scott Rawlinson, a U.S. spokesman, said ‘the greatest threat is that some minor incident could start a chain reaction that could lead to armed conflict ... It runs the risk of expanding into other provinces and rolling back security gains.”
In March, U.S. troops invited the Arab general and his Kurdish counterpart to a luncheon at the U.S. base in Kirkuk. Until then, Zaidi had refused to engage officially with someone he deemed a “militia” leader, U.S. officials said.
At the meeting, the two broke the ice and have since shared intelligence, said U.S. Army Major Christopher Norrie.
“Kurds have fought and died and sacrificed for this area for 80 years. It’s an incredibly emotional issue,” Norrie said.
Kurds are seen as perhaps more ready to make concessions than they were in the past, as the U.S. forces seen as their protectors prepare for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. Yet many are adamant about their right to field soldiers in Kirkuk.
“I say that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan and the Peshmerga should be present,” said Mohammed Kamal Salih, a Kurdish member of Kirkuk’s provincial council. “The Iraqi Army is fanning out, and we have a right to stop any problematic movements.”
Editing by Richard Balmforth
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