- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 12, 2009

KIRKUK, Iraq | Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that Arab and Kurdish leaders in Iraq were moving toward settling their differences, urging them to form an inclusive government quickly after a March vote.

Visiting U.S. troops and Iraqi police in the contested northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Mr. Gates called Arab-Kurdish tensions “perhaps the most worrisome issue in Iraq.”

Washington fears that an outbreak of violence between the groups in the area could tip Iraq back into war.

But Mr. Gates, who arrived in Iraq on Thursday after a visit to Afghanistan, said: “All the evidence we see indicates that they will work out these differences.”

“They’ve made some real headway in recent weeks.”

Kurds see Kirkuk and the surrounding province, which produces a fifth of Iraq’s oil, as their ancestral home and want it wrapped into their semiautonomous northern enclave. The city’s Arab and Turkmen populations fiercely oppose those aims.

Tensions among ethnic groups in the north are often exploited by insurgents, including al Qaeda, blamed for bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday that police said killed 112 people.

Mr. Gates said he spoke with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad earlier in the day about the need to form an inclusive government swiftly after national elections in March to minimize the risk of a return to sectarian bloodshed.

Strong leadership was needed in the run-up to the elections to prevent al Qaeda from disrupting them, Mr. Gates told Mr. al-Maliki, and he said any delay in forming a new government could create a “period of vulnerability,” according to Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary.

Violence has dipped sharply in Iraq over the past 18 months, but the recent bombings have stoked doubts about the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace before the elections.

Mr. Gates and Mr. al-Maliki had been scheduled to meet Thursday night, but the prime minister instead went to parliament to answer questions from lawmakers about the bombings and about efforts to improve security.

Bombings in Baghdad have become less frequent, but attacks remain common in disputed areas such as Kirkuk, where Mr. Gates met Arab and Kurdish policemen and U.S. troops who lead joint patrols in the city.

There have been standoffs between Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi troops. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, has singled out the tensions as the biggest single threat to stability.

Washington has been trying to broker security pacts between Mr. al-Maliki and the Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani. Those pacts may include joint patrols in disputed areas to build confidence.

Mr. Gates told Mr. Barzani in Irbil that the United States was committed to “Kurdish security, prosperity and autonomy within a unified Iraq,” according to Mr. Morrell.

“We will not abandon you,” Mr. Gates said.

Kurds fear that a nationalist Arab government in Baghdad might try to curtail the virtual independence they have enjoyed since shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf war after the U.S. withdrawal.

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