After seven and a half years, the American combat mission in Iraq formally ended a week ago. However, just under 50,000 US troops will remain to train and advise Iraqi security forces. One focus of attention is the northern city of Kirkuk which some fear could become a future flashpoint when American forces all depart at the end of next year. Both Kurdish and Arab communities claim territory in the area. The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse has spent time with the US Army in Kirkuk. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. The end of the US combat mission in Iraq doesn’t mean there aren’t US casualties there anymore. Just today, two American soldiers were killed by a gunman in northern Iraq. The gunman was wearing an Iraqi army uniform. It was a vivid reminder that the mission for US forces in Iraq continues to be dangerous. After the most recent withdrawal of combat troops, about 50,000 American soldiers remain in the country. The BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse went on patrol with some of them in Iraq’s volatile north.
TJ TEPLEY: We’re north of Kirkuk city.
GABRIEL GATEHOUSE: These are some of the soldiers who are staying behind.
TEPLEY: The main thing we’re looking out for in this area ‘cause there’s not a lot of structures around, it’s not urbanized, would be IEDs.
GATEHOUSE: We’re inside an American armored truck, one of a convoy of five, and Captain TJ Tepley and his men are on their way through the northern city of Kirkuk. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Saddam Hussein tried to empty Kirkuk of its Kurdish inhabitants. He bulldozed their houses and he brought in Arabs instead. That process is reversing somewhat, but it’s tense. So US soldiers play a crucial role in maintaining security here, though they’re pushing hard to shift that burden onto the shoulders of their Iraqi colleagues.
TEPLEY: In Kirkuk city since the Iraqi security forces are providing the majority of the security [INDISCERNIBLE] they see the majority of the attacks.
GATEHOUSE: In a village on the outskirts of the city, the twenty American soldiers climb out of their vehicles and continue on foot. The Americans patrol here along with Iraqi army soldiers, mostly Arabs, in sand colored uniforms, Iraqi police in blue camouflage, they’re mixed, and in the dark green, Kurdish Peshmerga forces. I get three members of this combined force together, a Kurd, an Arab and a Turkmen, that’s the other ethnic group living in this area, and I ask them how it’s all going. They all seem very happy working together. Saying they are all Iraqis after all.
MALE SPEAKER: There would be problems sometimes. There would be tension sometimes. But we, as a combined security force, we will not raise arms against each other. We will stick together.
GATEHOUSE: Is the American job finished here, time for them to leave?
GATEHOUSE: Better for some of them to stay. Lieutenant, what do you think about that?
RAFAEL ECHEVARRIA: You know, I think we’ve been here a really long time, seven years.
GATEHOUSE: That’s Lieutenant Rafael Echevarria.
ECHEVARRIA: So I think it’s time for us to move on. I think we accomplished the mission. We accomplished what we needed and I think it’s time for us to go.
GATEHOUSE: And, whether the Iraqis here like it or not, that is exactly what the Americans are going to do, by the end of next year. For the moment it all seems to be working terribly well. We’ve got Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen patrolling these villages together and hanging out with the local kids. The question there is, what happens when the Americans take themselves out of this equation and leave the Arabs and the Kurds to keep the peace between themselves on their own. I meet Ibrahim Jibrail in the house of the village “mukhtar,” or leader. Jibrail wears the traditional baggy Kurdish tunic and a turban.
GATEHOUSE: He lived through Saddam Hussein’s attempt at ethnic cleansing and he says that if the American soldiers leave, that cooperation we’ve seen could easily falter, and the conflict between Arabs and Kurds could break out again. The rapid reduction in the number of American troops in Iraq has been accompanied by a show of almost unshakeable optimism, at least in public, on the part of the US military and the State Department. And yet, their outgoing overall military commander here, General Raymond Odierno, said recently that UN forces might be needed to keep the peace between the Arabs and the Kurds after the US fully withdraws at the end of next year. The commanding officer in charge of Kirkuk, Colonel Larry Swift, is more cautious.
LARRY SWIFT: Political problems, absolutely. We’ve got them right now. Plenty of them. The issue has been, and will continue to be, are Kirkuk’s problems going to remain in the political realm. I think it’s going to be an extraordinary challenge for those inside the provincial council in the government of Iraq and the [SOUNDS LIKE] Kurd Regional Government, and in the State Department to sort these things out. But I think everyone agrees that if it spills over to any other realm, everyone’s going to lose.
GATEHOUSE: The trouble is, Kirkuk and its surrounding area sits on a sea of oil. And with so much historical baggage, without the Americans to keep the two sides apart, the fear is that the Arabs and the Kurds could decide that the only way to resolve those problems is through a return to conflict. For The World, I’m Gabriel Gatehouse, Kirkuk.
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