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US Proposes Sending Troops to Disputed Area of Northern Iraq

Recently, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said he wants to send American troops to a disputed strip of territory in northern Iraq - for a limited time - to defuse growing tensions between Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish militia. General Ray Odierno says the goal is to build trust between the two sides and bridge the gap between feuding Kurds and Arabs.

The disputed area includes Ninevah Province, which has experienced a string of bloody bombings recently, including in Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities. The U.S. blames al-Qaida in Iraq for the violence.

U.S. troops would deploy in Ninevah to partner with the Kurdish militia, Peshmerga, and Iraqi security forces controlled by the Arab-led government.

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Ray Ordierno, is concerned that tensions between the Kurdish militia and Iraqi security forces could escalate. He says American forces would help both sides learn to work together and the deployment would not involve a large number of U.S. troops.

Steven Biddle is a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"I think one of the reasons General Odierno is apparently contemplating moving troops to the north is because the American forces are uniquely trusted by both sides," he said.

Ordierno says Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Malaki, and Kurdistan leader, Massoud Barzani, are receptive. He says the proposal has not been finalized yet.

Both the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces patrol the disputed territory and view each other with suspicion. Biddle says the U.S. would create a buffer between the two sides.

"I think it will reduce the likelihood of violence because neither side is particularly interested in fighting [U.S. troops]," he explained. "If we put ourselves physically into a position, where in order to get at the enemy they have to go through us, I think that reduces the danger of violence."

Henri Barkey follows Iraqi politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He says tensions between Arabs and Kurds worsened when the U.S. entered Iraq in 2003.

"So now we're paying the price of ignoring all these tensions for 6 years, and the Peshmerga is nervous, specifically about what is going on in Ninevah [province]," he said. "Yes, it's understandable because there are a lot of vulnerable Kurdish populations in Ninevah and the Peshmerga would like to protect them. But in some ways, I think the United States bears responsibility, and maybe this is why Ordierno wants to send American troops."

The disputed region also contains oil-rich Kirkuk province, where recent bombings have killed more than 250 people. Kurdish leaders have long demanded that Kirkuk province, as well as parts of Ninevah province where Kurds live, be merged with semi autonomous Kurdistan. But Iraq's government says the territory should stay under its control. Barkey says these issues need to be resolved for tensions to ease.

"In addition, there is the question of the refugees, people who were displaced by Saddam, and forced to relocate to other parts of Iraq, who want to come back to Kirkuk," he added.

Odierno says if American forces are sent to the disputed region, they would mostly be in rural areas. He also says the troops would not stay past the date all American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq, at the end of 2011.