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Iraq's volatile north still a powder keg as US exits

Three killed, including two police, in Iraq blasts
Baghdad (AFP) July 25, 2010 - A spate of bomb attacks in Baghdad and northern Iraq on Sunday killed three people, including two policemen, and wounded 22 others, security officials said. In the south Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora, a policeman was killed and three of his colleagues wounded when a roadside bomb exploded, an interior ministry official said. In the nearby district of Saidiyah, one civilian was killed and three others injured by a magnetic "sticky bomb" affixed to a car, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Fourteen people were also wounded -- eight of them policemen -- when two roadside bombs exploded near a mobile phone shop in the west Baghdad neighbourhood of Ghazaliyah. And in the main northern city of Mosul, one policeman was killed and another wounded by a roadside bomb, a police official said. A young child was also among the injured. US and Iraqi officials have warned of the dangers of an upsurge in violence as negotiations on forming a new governing coalition have dragged on, giving insurgent groups an opportunity to further destabilise the country. More than four months after a March 7 general election which gave no single bloc an overall parliamentary majority, the two lists which won most seats are still bickering over who should be the next prime minister.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) July 25, 2010
As US troops withdraw from Iraq, a large swath of the oil-rich north coveted by the Kurdish regional government remains a powder keg that threatens to explode in violence, experts here say.

Since the 2003 invasion, US forces have managed to keep an uneasy peace in the ethnically diverse area, home to Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs -- including many forced to resettle there under Saddam Hussein's regime.

The US military withdrawal from Iraq is on schedule, according to the commander of US forces there, General Raymond Odierno.

Just 50,000 troops will remain after August 31, down from a peak of more than 170,000 and ahead of a full withdrawal in 2011.

Odierno however acknowledged to reporters in Washington at mid-week that despite some progress, "we have not solved the problems of the disputed areas" of northern Iraq.

"That's a problem that has to be dealt with in the future," he said. "Do I think this will be resolved by the end of 2011? No."

The US intelligence community's annual threat assessment earlier warned about the volatile region.

Regional tensions "have the potential to derail Iraq's generally positive security trajectory, including triggering conflict among Iraq 's ethno-sectarian groups," then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair wrote in the assessment, out in February.

Land ownership, control of oil resources, and integrating Kurdish peshmerga fighters into Iraq's army are issues that "still need to be worked out, and miscalculations or misperceptions on either side risk an inadvertent escalation of violence."

US diplomatic and military involvement "will remain critical in defusing crises in this sphere," Blair wrote.

There are 15 disputed zones in northern Iraq, including oil-rich Kirkuk province, large parts of Nineveh, and two districts in Diyala.

Kurdish leaders want their autonomous region to include historically Kurdish-inhabited parts of Nineveh and Diyala as well as all of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.

Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have clashed over the past two years as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has increased Iraqi Security Force (ISF) presence in the area.

To help calm tensions, US troops started joint patrols with Arab and Kurdish soldiers in disputed zones in January. Odierno wants these units to be incorporated into the ISF by the time US forces fully withdraw.

Is this realistic? The joint patrols have been successful, but they "are only as good as the intent of the political leadership in Baghdad and Arbil," said Eric Davis, an Iraq expert at Rutgers University.

Arbil is the capital of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, which operates as a semi-independent state within Iraq.

Davis fears the Kurds "are going to continue to treat the peshmerga as a separate force outside of the central government, and the leadership in Baghdad is going to try to use the Iraqi army as it becomes stronger to intimidate the peshmerga."

Integrating the peshmerga into the ISF is a recipe for disaster, said Michael Gunter at the Tennessee Technological University, who has written extensively on the Kurds.

"Those are the very two groups that are most likely to start fighting each other," he said.

Odierno briefly raised the idea of introducing United Nations peacekeepers to the region, but there are "currently no discussions under way" for that scenario, said Pentagon spokesman Major Shawn Turner.

Despite the potential for violence, Davis believes many regional time bombs can be defused with resolve from Iraq's government -- still in limbo since March elections.

"A lot of this is less about strict ethic stuff, it's more about elites trying to manipulate the situation for their own political ends," he said.

A deal for exploiting oil in the region agreeable to Kurdish authorities would be an important first step, Davis said.

Perhaps the thorniest issue is Kirkuk, 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad, which the Kurds insist should be under their control.

Davis dismisses the idea. "It's a multi-ethnic town, and if anyone ends up getting a special deal, it will lead to anger and resentment and more violence -- it's not a solution," he said.

Ideas for Kirkuk include turning it into a separate province -- similar to what Washington DC is in the United States - and turning it into an international city under UN protection, similar to the status of Trieste, on the border between Italy and Slovenia at the end of World War II.

Gunter believes the Kurds, who are losing their strong post-invasion position as the central government in Baghdad strengthens, should show flexibility in their demands.

"For the Kurds to get their best deal, they have to be magnanimous with the Arabs and not be seen as taking advantage of their temporary weakness," he said.

In any case the US military clearly realizes that the area remains volatile. The US force in the area "will probably be one of the last units to leave Iraq," Odierno said.

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