U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Iraqi Arab and Kurdish leaders have made progress in recent weeks toward resolving their differences over power sharing and the status of the city of Kirkuk. Gates met Friday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani at his regional capital, Irbil.
In-between the meetings in Baghdad and Irbil, Secretary Gates stopped at a U.S. airbase near the disputed city of Kirkuk, where he told several hundred American troops he sees signs of progress toward resolving Iraq's Arab-Kurd dispute. "I actually think they've made some real headway in recent weeks," he said.
Answering a question from one of the American soldiers, Gates called Iraq's Arab-Kurd issue "perhaps the most worrisome" in the country. But he said he believes it can be resolved without violence. "There is no question that the Kurds see their future as part of a unified Iraq. And what's at issue is the terms on which that goes forward. That's negotiable. And we'll do what we can. But at this point, all the evidence that we see indicates that they will work out these differences. And to the degree we can help, we will do that," he said.
U.S. officials who attended the meetings say Secretary Gates urged Prime Minister Maliki and regional President Barzani to ensure the new parliament forms a government in a "timely and inclusive" manner after the March 7 election. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says Gates urged both leaders to avoid a repetition of the "painful memory" of the five-month government formation process in 2005. U.S. officials are concerned such a prolonged political process will create an opening for al-Qaida to try to foment ethnic strife, just as tens of thousands of U.S. troops are scheduled to be leaving Iraq.
Morrell quoted Gates as telling President Barzani the United States has a long-term commitment to Kurdish "security, prosperity and autonomy within a united Iraq." And he urged the Kurdish leader to continue to pursue improved relations with Baghdad.
On Thursday, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby, said the improved cooperation between Prime Minister Maliki and President Barzani has led to reduced tension between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga force. "The act of interest and trust of those two leaders has led to greater cooperation within the disputed internal boundaries amongst all parties. And we have not had the kinds of friction that's been seen in the past. In fact, it's been a very solid relationship," he said.
General Jacoby says the Iraqi and Kurdish forces have begun to put aside political differences and, with American help, start to build what he called "a security architecture."
U.S. officials say they are in a better position to mediate and press for the resolution of difficult issues while the United States has a sizable military force in Iraq.
That force is scheduled to be reduced from nearly 120,000 now to 50,000 by next October, and to zero by the end of 2011, although Secretary Gates said Friday there could be a follow-on agreement for some U.S. troops to stay, particularly elements of the Air Force. Gates said he expects the Iraqi Arab and Kurdish leaders to settle their disagreements in what he called a "timely fashion," that will not affect the U.S. withdrawal timeline.