More than six weeks after U.S. soldiers withdrew from Iraqi cities, the top American commander wants to put U.S. troops in disputed parts of northern Iraq.
Gen. Ray Odierno said Monday that he has proposed that U.S. soldiers work alongside the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces in areas that have been targets for deadly bombings over the past few weeks.
Political tension between Iraq's Arabs and ethnic Kurds has resulted in a security gap in the north that al-Qaida and other militants have exploited. More than 150 people have been killed in attacks in villages in Iraq's north in recent weeks.
Odierno outlined his security proposal to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the president of the Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barzani, over the past few days. Both were receptive, he said.
High profile bombings in villages in northern Iraq have focused their attention, Odierno said. "I would say that has encouraged everybody to say we need to start looking at this, yes," he said.
Uneasy Transition In The North
When U.S. forces moved out of Iraqi cities on June 30, Iraqis celebrated as Iraqi troops took over security.
But the transition did not go smoothly in northern Iraq. A dispute between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds over territory and oil has been so tense that the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militias have been close to open conflict.
As a result, some villages are unprotected, with only local police to stop the bombers. Odierno said al-Qaida has exploited that gap.
"Unfortunately, they are killing a lot of innocent civilians, and so that is not acceptable to the Iraqi government, and it's not acceptable to us. So we are trying to come up with solutions to solve this problem," he said.
Odierno acknowledges that his plan — three-way military operations with the Iraqi army and the Kurdish government's Peshmerga militia — is a departure from the security agreement that sets a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
About 130,000 U.S. forces are now in Iraq, a number expected to shrink to 50,000 by next August. All U.S. troops are supposed to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
A Confidence-Building Step
The move north would not last long, Odierno said, and will not delay the withdrawal calendar.
Odierno and other American commanders say the Arab-Kurd dispute is the most dangerous and unresolved issue in the country.
"I think they just all feel more comfortable if we are there initially, just as a confidence-building [presence]," Odierno said.
Iraqis are looking for confidence amid an increase in violence in recent weeks.
In the capital, Baghdad, workers were cleaning up Monday after a pair of bombs exploded Sunday night at a busy restaurant.
Iraqis in Baghdad say al-Qaida militants are to blame for the high profile attacks. But the daily, small-scale violence is the result of political parties jockeying for power ahead of the elections, they say.
Mohammad Huzam, who pulled people out of the rubble, said things will get worse because everyone is after his own interests.
Government spokesman Tahseen al-Sheikhli said that while many Iraqis may blame political parties for the bloodshed, it is not true because the violence "will be reflected on them also."
The American general in change of multinational forces in the north, Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, says insurgents have turned increasingly from targeting coalition troops to attacking Iraqi civilians.
Caslen, who is based in the northern city of Mosul, said that before June 30, militants used the presence of coalition forces in the cities as a pretext for bombings and other violence.
"Now that we have moved out of the city, we would think they will stop the attacks, but the fact is they haven't," he told NPR. "The attacks are still occurring, and guess who they are going after? They are going after the people. And that shows the intent of those groups is to control and intimidate the people, discredit the government, discredit the Iraqi security forces so they can fill the gap instead.