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. 

“[The US] is going to have increasingly less leverage — which is what many of the Kurds are afraid of — because leverage is determined by boots on the ground,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “We can cross our fingers and hope that we have diplomatic leverage, but … those who feel that they’re coming out the loser, always have an interest in delaying or defying knowing that we’re not going to have troops there.” 

Among U.S. commanders dealing with the Arabs and Kurds in the disputed region of Diyala, there is a strong sense of optimism that the situation can be resolved or at least mitigated before American forces depart. Trying to affect even their speech with this hopeful outlook, U.S. military officers have stopped using the term “Arab-Kurd tensions” and instead refer only to “Arab-Kurd relations.”  

“If we keep talking about and convincing ourselves that it will result in conflict, then eventually we’ll find ourselves there,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mike Kasales, who has commanded U.S. troops in the disputed area of Diyala for nearly a year. “With current set of conditions, I can’t see the entities on the ground taking arms up to solve the problem.” If tensions are still running high as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw, there is speculation among U.S. military officials that an international peacekeeping force could be deployed to the area. However, there has been no official discussion of this as a possibility.  

The U.S. has instead been working to create the means for the Arabs and the Kurds to maintain open lines of communication that will outlast their presence in the region. In particular, they have created joint command centers where Kurdish and Arab military officials work alongside one another to plan and monitor operations. Having a place where commanders from both groups can meet reduces the possibility of an accidental conflict between their military units, say U.S. military officials.

So far, U.S. military officials say they’ve seen success in reducing tensions. Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, says that already the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces are conducting some joint patrols and they have plans to jointly man several checkpoints.

“As long as we don’t fall asleep at the switch I think we’re going to be okay,” Col. Thopmson said. “The key is if you see that some of the stressors are building, you’ve got to reduce them.”

The U.S. mission in Iraq is arriving at a point common to most modern American wars, said Rubin, where they have to accept that they will likely not leave behind a perfect situation. 

“There’s always a reason to stay,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a political decision whether or not to withdraw and whether the cost of that withdraw is going to be too high.”  

With the withdraw date firmly established, the U.S. has already made its decision. Now it’s a matter of trying to stabilize the situation as much as possible before the final exit of U.S. forces.

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