21 April 2006
U.S. Commander Highlights Progress in Northern Iraq
Iraqi forces keeping the peace in ethnically diverse, energy-rich region
By David I. McKeeby
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington – Keeping the peace in ethnically diverse, energy-rich northern Iraq can be compared to a three-dimensional chess game, says Colonel David Gray, of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“And that assumes that the enemy plays by our rules, and he doesn't,” Gray told journalists at an April 21 Pentagon press briefing from Tikrit, Iraq.
A commander active in training Iraqi security forces, Gray says that Iraqi army and police in north Iraq already have assumed control of security in Sulimaniyah and Salahuddin provinces, and are on track to take the lead in much of the area surrounding the city of Kirkuk.
“They have made great strides in their capability and their confidence in themselves,” Gray said, attributing the fact that northern Iraq seldom sees the level of violence seen in Baghdad to the, “courage and the efforts of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people in this area.” (See related article.)
Gray said Sunni insurgents and Shi’a militia groups are active in the region, but the greatest security challenge in northern Iraq is keeping watch over the simmering tensions among the region’s Kurds, Arabs, Turkoman and Assyrians, who seek control over Kirkuk, home to 40 percent of Iraq's oil and 70 percent of its natural gas. (See related article.)
Much of this tension can be traced back to Saddam Hussein, who forcibly removed more than 120,000 Kurds, Turkoman and Assyrians from their homes in a campaign of “Arabization” in and around the city of Kirkuk. Returning to their homes after Saddam’s ouster, many displaced Iraqis now are seeking to reclaim former property. (See related article.)
“Right now we haven't seen any widespread violence regarding this issue, but I believe it's clearly one that needs to be dealt with quickly for this part of Iraq to move on and be peaceful overall,” Gray said.
Coming to terms with this aspect of Saddam’s brutal legacy is an issue that local authorities are struggling to resolve gradually, but Gray said that incidents of intimidation, kidnapping and murder hint at efforts of insurgents and other groups to exploit ethnic tensions and disrupt Iraq’s progress toward democracy.
"I would credit the relative calm that most believe is in our area to aggressive commanders and soldiers on the ground – both Iraqi and American – who keep their finger on the pulse in the region and have developed a keen sense for the potential flashpoints," he said.
Gray said that a final decision about Kirkuk’s status – “whether it becomes part of the Kurdistan region or some other status” -- ultimately will require input from the Iraqi government, another reason most area residents are anxious to see the conclusion of ongoing negotiations to form a government of national unity. (See related article.)
“The longer the government is not seated, the more the insurgents try to drive wedges between the politicians trying to seat that government and the people, undermining the legitimacy of the institutions that are up and working,” said Gray.
The transcript of Gray’s briefing is available from the Web site of the U.S. Department of Defense.
For more information, see Iraq Update.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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