The top U.S. military commander in Iraq says United Nations peacekeepers may be needed to protect disputed areas in the northern part of the country after U.S. troops leave in 2011.

In an interview with the Associated Press, General Ray Odierno says a U.N. peacekeeping force might be an option if tensions between Kurds in northern Iraq and the country's Arab population have not eased by the time of the U.S. pullout at the end of next year. However, Odierno said he hopes a U.N. presence will not be needed there.

Iraq's Kurdistan region has been involved in a feud with Baghdad over the oil-rich Kirkuk region. Former dictator Saddam Hussein expelled thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and relocated Arab families to the area.

In March, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq said it might be necessary to keep some U.S. forces in the region beyond an August 31 deadline. Major General Tony Cucolo said the troops might be needed to help maintain peace between Iraqi national and Kurdish regional forces.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq by September, with 50,000 troops to remain. Under a security agreement, all U.S. troops must pull out by the end of 2011.

Some information for this report was provided by AP.

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