The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq says it might be necessary to keep some American combat forces in the country beyond the August 31 deadline, to continue serving as a buffer between Iraqi national and Kurdish regional forces. But the officer says the situation is improving and the two groups might not need a third-party to help them for very long.
Speaking from his headquarters in northern Iraq, Major General Tony Cucolo told reporters during a conference call it might be necessary to keep combat troops involved in the security mechanism that maintains peace between Iraqi national and Kurdish regional forces beyond the deadline.
"If there is any place we keep combat power, this is just my guess, it's as a part of the combined security mechanism," said General Cucolo.
That would require a change in the U.S.-Iraqi agreement that calls for all American combat troops to be out of Iraq by the end of August, and senior U.S. officials have said it would take a major security problem for them to advocate such a change. But General Cucolo says he is only talking about maybe 800 troops in 26 small units spread along the Arab-Kurd regional border, and they could be redesignated as advisory units.
And the general says even that may not be necessary. He says the Kurdish and Arab forces that nearly went to war last year, before the three-way security system was established, are now working together quite well. In the interview, he predicted they might be able to work without U.S. help by the time the American combat role is to end six months from now, but later he backed off from that a little bit.
"If politics can stay out of it, these soldiers get along," he said. "And if that zone of friction between Kurds and Arabs is left to security forces I think over time they will not need a third party. I should not put a timetable on it. Six months is too wild a guess."
Still, General Cucolo's assessment is more optimistic than some other officers, who have warned U.S. combat troops might be needed to stave off potential violence in his region as a new government is formed and as political leaders try to solve difficult issues involving the borders of the Kurdish region and the status of the City of Kirkuk.
The general is also concerned about those issues, but he notes that the period leading up to last Sunday's election was much more peaceful than had been expected. Still, he says his forces are preparing for any problems that might arise in the coming months.
"We're going through the 'What if?' drill right now because it's not clear to us what the results are," explained Major General Tony Cucolo. "We're doing the "What ifs" of if one group feels tremendously disenfranchised what would they do. And then we switch it to another group."
The general says such planning, together with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, is the key to maintaining security, as it was for the mostly peaceful Iraqi Election Day.
"What has to be clear to the Iraqi citizens is that their security is guaranteed to the greatest degree possible," he said.
At the same time, General Cucolo is preparing for the departure of more than half his troops by the August deadline. He is facing a cut from 22,000 to 9,000, which he says will result in less 'partnering' with Iraqi and Kurdish units - leaving them more and more on their own to provide the security he says is the key to resolving the political issues and providing stability for the future.