IRBIL, Iraq – Friction between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq is the greatest threat to security in Iraq, American military commanders said, overtaking the old Sunni-Shiite divide that threatened to push Iraq into civil war three years ago.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is visiting the semiautonomous Kurdish region Wednesday during a brief trip to Iraq that has included meetings with political leaders who are feuding with Kurdish leaders over the borders of the oil-rich Kurdish lands.
He met Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in Irbil, seat of the regional government. Barzani claimed victory in a re-election vote last weekend that also saw large gains by an opposition slate.
Gates made a point Tuesday of saying the United States is "ready to help resolve disputes over boundaries and hydrocarbons," and said all sides should work out differences without violence.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in the country, identified the tension in northern Iraq as the "No. 1 driver of instability."
"Many insurgent groups are trying to exploit the tensions," Odierno told reporters Tuesday. "We're watching very carefully to see that this doesn't escalate."
So far, American intermediaries are helping keep a lid on things, Odierno said. His deputy, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, also pointed to friction between northern Iraq and southern Iraq as a main concern as the United States prepares to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by August of next year. All U.S. forces are to be out by 2012.
The Kurds have been locked in a dispute with Baghdad over control of oil resources and a fault line of contested territory in northern Iraq, particularly the flash-point city of Kirkuk. The disagreements have stalled a national oil law considered vital to encouraging foreign investment. U.S. officials have warned that Arab-Kurdish tensions could erupt into a new front in the Iraq conflict and jeopardize security gains elsewhere.
Separatist sentiment is high in Kurdistan, which gained autonomy after rising up against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1991. The region was protected from his forces by a U.S.-British no-fly zone until Saddam's fall in 2003.
Kurdish leaders say they are committed to staying in a unified Iraq, particularly since an independence push could alienate neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey, which have their own Kurdish minorities. But Iraqi Kurdish politicians must answer to the strong nationalist sentiment among Kurds.
Reformist candidates did better than expected against two established Kurdish political parties in weekend elections, adding to the uncertainty. The reformist slate, called Change, tapped into widespread frustration over alleged corruption and intimidation by the longtime ruling establishment.
Despite their internal differences, Kurds were united in their hard line in disputes with Iraq's Arabs.
Two mainstream parties have long dominated power in the northern region: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. They have been credited with keeping their region relatively prosperous and largely free of the violence that raged elsewhere in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Also on Wednesday, Ordierno said Iran is still training and equipping Iraqi insurgents but is shifting its focus to influence the upcoming Iraqi elections and exerting "soft power" over its majority-Shiite neighbor.
Iranian meddling "is more targeted now than it has ever been," he said. "They are focused on their attempt to influence the national elections that will come up. They will be very focused on trying to support a government that will be more friendly to Iran."