- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

BAGHDAD | Hundreds of Sunni Arabs opposed to the presence of Kurdish troops in disputed areas of northern Iraq demonstrated Saturday against a U.S. proposal to deploy a mixed force of U.S., Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers in the area.

More than 300 people in the Sunni-dominated town of Hawija, once an insurgent stronghold, gathered in a stadium to protest the inclusion of Kurdish troops in these patrols.

The demonstrators and critics elsewhere in Iraq also denounced the plan as a violation of a security pact under which the United States pulled its troops back from populated areas in June.

The split between Iraq’s majority Arabs and the Kurdish minority, which controls a semiautonomous region in the north, is one of the most significant long-term threats to the country’s stability, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

Sunni Arabs fear the Kurds are looking to add Arab lands to their control.

The top U.S. military commander in the country thinks al Qaeda in Iraq is taking advantage of tensions between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, to carry out attacks on villages not guarded by either side.

To try to fill the gap, Gen. Ray Odierno last month proposed the idea of a mixed force that would include U.S. troops serving in an oversight role to help Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers work together to secure areas along that fault line.

The issue has come to the fore with a series of deadly bombings targeting villages outside the tense city of Mosul, where al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents remain active despite numerous U.S.-Iraq military operations.

Gen. Odierno said the deployment of the U.S.-Iraq-Kurd protection forces would start in Ninevah province, which includes Mosul, then extend to Kirkuk and to Diyala province north of the capital.

The plan, which would represent a departure from the security pact under which the U.S. forces pulled back from populated areas on June 30, has yet to be approved.

The demonstrators in Hawija, west of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, held banners that called the plan a violation of the constitution and the security agreement, which took effect Jan. 1 and replaced the U.N. mandate for foreign forces.

“Arabs in this and other disputed areas reject this proposal because they say it will provoke sectarian divisions among residents, and it is a violation of the constitution,” said the head of Hawija’s city council, Hussein al-Jubouri.

Protesters raised Iraqi flags and banners reading “No to the division of Iraq.” Anti-al Qaeda paramilitary fighters accompanying the demonstrators joined in and brandished their assault rifles over their heads.

In Baghdad, a senior parliament official said Gen. Odierno’s plan was still being studied and no final decision had been reached.

“There were reactions against it and we are studying these reactions in order to evaluate this plan,” said Abbas al-Bayati, chairman of the Parliament’s security committee.

A minister in the Kurdish regional government, Mohammed Ihsan, said he met with U.S. military officials in the Kurdish city of Irbil on Wednesday to discuss the plan.

“We have agreed on the American proposal. … It is a way to build trust and good will between both sides to resolve the lingering problem of disputed areas,” Mr. Ihsan said.

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