BAGHDAD – The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Monday that he wants to deploy American soldiers to disputed territories in northern Iraq following a recent spike in bombings there.
The move would be a departure from the security pact that called for Americans to pull back from populated areas on June 30.
The U.S. soldiers would partner with Iraqi government and Kurdish troops to secure the largely unguarded villages along the faultline of land disputed between Arabs and Kurds, Gen. Ray Odierno said.
He stressed that no final decision has been made but said Iraqi and Kurdish leaders were receptive to the idea.
"I think they just all feel more comfortable if we're there," he told reporters Monday at a briefing at Camp Victory, the U.S. military headquarters on Baghdad's western outskirts.
The U.S. deployment would be a temporary "confidence-building" measure, he said, adding he had discussed the idea with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier Monday in a meeting.
Odierno said it would not affect the overall withdrawal timeline that calls for U.S. combat forces to leave the country by the end of August 2010, with a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Iraq's government, meanwhile, approved a draft law paving the way for a referendum on the security pact that lays out the U.S. withdrawal timeline to be held simultaneously with national parliamentary elections on Jan. 16, spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. The measure still needs to be approved by Iraq's parliament, which is in recess until next month.
Iraqi lawmakers agreed to the security pact last November, after months of bitter negotiations. But it included the caveat that the deal should go before voters in a referendum to be held by July 30. The government said earlier this year that it wanted the referendum to be held on the same day as the national elections to save time and money.
Opponents had argued the Americans should leave immediately after the Dec. 31 expiration of a U.N. mandate for foreign forces.
The inclusion of the referendum met a demand by the main Sunni bloc in parliament and raised the possibility that the deal could be rejected if anti-U.S. anger and demands for an immediate withdrawal grow.
Odierno's announcement reflects heightened U.S. concern over an increase in violence since American troops pulled back from urban areas, particularly in northern Iraq. Some 160 people have been killed in bombings near the northern city of Mosul and in Baghdad since Aug. 7, when the recent spike began.
"I'm still very confident in the overall security here," Odierno said. "Unfortunately they're killing a lot of innocent civilians."
Several top defense officials have identified the split between Iraq's majority Arabs and the Kurdish minority as probably a greater long-term threat to Iraq's stability than the more familiar Sunni-Shiite conflict. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to the Kurdish self-rule area in the North to make the case that both sides have limited time to resolve their differences before U.S. troops leave in 2011.
At the heart of the dispute is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and a batch of villages in Ninevah province that the Kurds want to incorporate into their semiautonomous area despite opposition from Arabs and minority Turkomen ethnic group.
Odierno said al-Qaida in Iraq was exploiting the ethnic divisions to stage high-profile bombings in small towns that don't have a police force and other so-called soft targets in order to avoid heavy security concentrated in more central areas and maximize the number of casualties.
"Al-Qaida is trying to take advantage of the seam," he said.
He said the deployment of the U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish protection forces would start in Ninevah province, which includes the volatile city of Mosul, then extend to Kirkuk.
Odierno discussed the idea with senior Iraqi and Kurdish officials on Sunday and planned another meeting in early September.
"Having met with all these leaders, I think there is room to work this out," he said.