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US plays peace broker in Iraq

As tensions between Arabs and Kurds grow, and US troops prepare to leave, the race is on to broker a lasting peace.

An Iraqi girl looks at a U.S. soldier as he patrols Baquba, in Diyala Province, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, Nov. 3, 2008. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

BAQUBA, Iraq — As an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq draws near, American forces are increasingly focused on their role as an "honest broker" for the Arabs and Kurds.

While much of the nation’s sectarian violence has dissipated, tensions remain high between these two ethnic groups, whose collective history goes back centuries.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Kurdish region in Iraq’s north has functioned as a semiautonomous state. Prior to that, the Kurds had been battling Saddam Hussein’s Arab regime for decades. But given the complexity of Arab-Kurd relations, U.S. commanders admit they cannot change longstanding attitudes with the time they have left.

“We’re not trying to change attitudes, I don’t think we’re trying to change the way either side feels about each other, but we are trying to create a mechanism or a process that they can use that will outlive us,” said Maj. Steve Marr, operations officer for the U.S. Army 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Diyala Province. “There’s nowhere in Iraq where we’re going to change the relationships that have been built over several hundred years, several thousand years in some cases, in the span of one-and-a-half, two years.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of oil riches has been thrown into the mix, with both sides laying claim to the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, as well as the northern edge of the Diyala Province. 

Throughout the Iraq war, U.S. forces have been able to act as an impartial mediator between Arabs and Kurds. However, as the U.S. continues to shrink its presence in preparation for the final withdraw in December 2011, it remains unclear how long the forced peace will last.

Responding to these growing tensions at the end of August, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said he wanted to move more troops to the North to work alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces. So far, Iraqi leaders have been receptive to this idea.

Still, the situation remains unstable throughout the disputed areas. There are reports of Kurds being pressured to move into the disputed Kirkuk Province in an effort to further the assertion that it’s Kurdish territory. Along the northern edge of the Diyala Province, there have been several heated arguments that nearly escalated to violence as Iraqi and Kurdish forces jousted over who controlled certain areas.

If fighting does erupt, it remains uncertain just how much the U.S. will be able or willing to intervene. In a trip to Iraq this summer, Vice President Joe Biden made clear that once the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, it will not return if a civil war breaks out.

By August 2010, the U.S. will end combat operations in Iraq, leaving only 35,000 to 50,000 troops in the country — less than a third of the current troop strength.