by Oliver August
The US military plans to send thousands of American soldiers back to the oil-rich north of Iraq to prevent a civil war between Arabs and Kurds.
Kurdish and Arab leaders have agreed in principle to allowing US soldiers into unsettled areas around Mosul and Kirkuk, according to General Ray Odierno, the top US military commander in Iraq. The troops will form joint units with Iraqi counterparts to subdue what has become the most volatile part of the country.
Many leaders in the region disagree about where the border should run between their territories and how oil revenues should be shared. "We have al-Qaeda exploiting this fissure that you're seeing between the Arabs and the Kurds, and what we're trying to do is close that fissure, that seam," General Odierno said.
Despite the developments in Iraq President Obama told a group of US veterans in Phoenix yesterday that he will stick to his plan.
"As we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments," he said. "And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy. For America, the Iraq war will end."
The veterans did not applaud this line in his speech but he was given a warmer reception when he pledged to reform the procurement process so that troops have the best equipment possible.
There was laughter at his example of military waste - a billion- dollar helicopter that would allow the President to cook during a nuclear war: "If the United States is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack," he said.
More than 100 people have been killed in mixed Arab-Kurdish areas this month, including car bombings that have destroyed villages near Mosul. Inside the city, armed men killed two policemen and wounded one civilian at a checkpoint yesterday.
"I'm still very confident in the overall security here," General Odierno said. "Unfortunately they're killing a lot of innocent civilians."
In yet another sign of how unstable the region is, the authorities have cancelled a census to determine the division of land and oil. It was feared that it would inflame tensions by revealing which side had the better chance of winning a referendum.
Ali Baban, the Planning Minister, said: "After hearing the fears, concerns and reservations of political groups in Kirkuk and Ninevah, we decided to slow down the process and the census has been postponed indefinitely."
The deployment of the US protection force will start in Ninevah province, which includes Mosul, and extend to Kirkuk. General Odierno discussed the plan, which appears necessary in military terms but unpopular with voters, with officials from Iraq and the Kurdish region on Sunday.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, is trying to win re-election in January on the back of a programme of security improvements.
Under the plans drawn up by the US, control of the unstable areas would return to the Arab and Kurdish forces. The emergency move, however, has the potential to change the dynamic of the US withdrawal and it will almost certainly require a rewriting of a bilateral security agreement made by the Iraqi Government and President Bush last year.
© 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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