BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.N.'s outgoing top diplomat in Iraq on Sunday said the government in Baghdad must determine whether its security forces are strong enough to thwart violence before requiring U.S. troops to leave at the end of the year.
In his last interview after two years in Baghdad, U.N. envoy Ad Melkert said Iraqi security forces have made "clear improvements," but he declined to say if he thinks they are ready to protect the country without help from the American military.
"It's up to the government, really, to assess if it is enough to deal with the risks that are still around," Mr. Melkert said in a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press on the eve of his departure Monday.
"Obviously, security remains a very important issue."
The U.S. and Iraqi governments are negotiating how many American troops might stay, and what role they would play, in a mission that already has lasted more than eight years. A 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but the country's shaky security situation and vulnerability to Iranian influence has prompted politicians on both sides to buck widespread public disapproval and reconsider the deadline.
Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq from just a few years ago, but deadly attacks still occur nearly every day. A pair of bombs killed two people on Sunday and wounded five in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods in Baghdad, including one that was hidden on a civilian's car.
Chief among the U.N.'s concerns about security are tensions between Arabs and Kurds over disputed land in Iraq's north.
Some analysts have predicted that the tensions could lead to civil war if the years-long dispute isn't settled and security forces are unable to contain violence there.
To keep tensions from boiling over, Mr. Melkert said, joint Arab-Kurdish security forces in the swath of disputed lands must continue to work together if the Americans leave. The joint force was designed by the U.S. military, which fears it will dissolve without their hands-on guidance.
Mr. Melkert said he believes the joint force will remain intact, calling it "extremely important" during efforts to parcel out the swath of disputed territory in Ninevah, Tamim and Diyala provinces, with the city of Kirkuk at the center.
"You cannot eternally have disputed areas, because sooner or later there will be interests to abuse the unresolved nature of the situation," Mr. Melkert said. "But it needs to be done, of course, in a more stable environment, and I believe these joint coordination centers, joint checkpoints, can play an important role in providing that stability."
Last year, soon-to-be Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno, who then was commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, suggested that U.N. peacekeepers could continue to mentor the Arab-Kurd forces if American troops leave.
Mr. Melkert all but ruled that out. "There's certainly no talk of any U.N. peacekeeping efforts," he said.
In an interview after Mr. Melkert's comments, Brig. Gen. Sherko Fatih, commander of Iraqi army troops in Kirkuk, cited "harsh arguments and friction" between Arab and Kurdish soldiers that led him to ask to close joint checkpoints there. He said his request was denied.
"Neither are independent, and the trust is not there between them," Gen. Fatih said of the ethnically split troops. "Therefore, the U.S. withdrawal will have fearful consequences."
A senior spokesman for the Kurdish forces known as "peshmerga" said American advisers largely stopped overseeing the joint troops three months ago. He predicted the Kurdish-Arab force would remain in place in at least 22 checkpoints across the disputed lands.
"These checkpoints will keep on its joint work even after the departure of U.S troops," peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar said.
A decision on whether U.S. troops will remain is not expected for several weeks at least, and the American military already is starting to pack up to leave. About 46,000 U.S. troops currently are in Iraq. The White House has offered to keep up to 10,000 there.
Mr. Melkert also met Sunday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who issued a statement praising the envoy's work. Mr. al-Maliki said Mr. Melkert affirmed U.N. support of Baghdad's push to transfer several thousand Iranian exiles who live in a remote desert camp out of the country by the end of the year.
The residents of Camp Ashraf are a resistance group to Tehran's clerical regime. They have been a thorn in Mr. al-Maliki's side as he tried to bolster ties with Iran.
The Ashraf residents do not want to leave, however, and it's not known where they could go. It's not clear if they are considered refugees with a protected status under international treaties.
Mr. Melkert did not discuss Camp Ashraf during the AP interview.
Associated Press writer Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.