The top American military commander in Iraq said Tuesday that U.N. peacekeeping forces may need to protect disputed territories in the nation's north if tensions between Kurds and Arabs haven't eased by the time U.S. troops leave in 2011.
In an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno said U.N. peacekeepers might be one option if Kurdish soldiers haven't integrated into the Arab-dominated Iraqi army over the next year. He said he hopes the U.N. forces won't be necessary.
But Odierno acknowledged that tensions between the two cultures - and the oil-rich land in Iraq's north that each side claims as its territory - have been simmering for years without resolution. Iraq's Kurds want several areas of Ninevah, Tamim and Diyala provinces to be part of their autonomous region, a move opposed by the Arab-dominated central government.
"If (they) have not integrated, we might have to think of some other mechanism," Odierno said. "I don't know what that is yet. Is it a Chapter 6 U.N. force? I don't know. But that's something that has to be worked out, and it'll be depending on how far we are able to bring this process."
Chapter 6 of the United Nations charter refers to peacekeeping duties like investigating and mediating disputes.
Odierno said that if Kurdish troops are working well within the Iraqi army, "then we'll let them do it. It's too early to tell. But that's an issue that we'll have to watch and work through."
The prospect of U.N. peacekeepers raises questions about whether Iraq will be stable by the time all U.S. troops are required to leave at the end of 2011 under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
It's widely believed that Iraq's leaders may ask the United States to revisit that agreement and leave at least some troops behind after 2011 to give the nation's uneven army and police forces more time to train.
Odierno maintained that decision would be up to the incoming Iraqi government, whose leadership is still being negotiated after no clear winner emerged from the March parliamentary elections. But he left open the door that some U.S. troops might stay.
"I don't see a large U.S. presence here. I really don't," he said. "They might want technical support, but again, that's their decision, not ours."
The United Nations would need to approve a resolution before sending peacekeeping troops to Iraq, and doing so would significantly change its political mission. The current U.N. mission in Iraq does not include support for peacekeepers.
A U.N. spokeswoman in Baghdad, Radhia Achouri, directed questions about potential peacekeepers to the Iraqi government and the U.N. Security Council in New York.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, U.N. officials and diplomats said there has been no discussion about the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping force in northern Iraq. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Worried that the ethnic tensions could lead to war after Kurdish and Iraqi troops clashed in eastern Diyala province in 2008, Odierno this year ordered the U.S. military to set up security checkpoints in the disputed territories that are guarded by soldiers from all three forces.
The hope is that Kurds and Arabs would work together against a common enemy - al-Qaida in Iraq and insurgents who exploit the tensions - instead of fighting each other.
The experiment for the most part has been peaceful, but clashes continue to break out between Kurdish and Arab forces, including one on Monday when a fistfight led to gunfire among soldiers near a market in Qara Tappah, a Diyala town about 75 miles northeast of Baghdad. Two Iraqi soldiers, a Kurdish officer and one civilian were wounded in the clash.
Authorities called the clash a misunderstanding between soldiers, and Odierno described it as a spat between individuals - and not a widespread Kurd-Arab problem.
There's no guarantee the checkpoints will remain once U.S. forces leave in 2011. In an AP interview last month, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, a Kurd who is top commander of the Iraqi military, said the checkpoints will no longer be necessary once Iraq's parliament settles the disputed areas.
When that might happen, however, anyone's guess.
Odierno said he could not predict when parliament might address the morass - or whether it might be solved before the end of 2011.
"It's a difficult issue," he said. He said he hopes negotiations over selecting Iraq's new leaders "might help push it forward a little bit, but we'll see."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)