By Adam Entous
December 11, 2009
KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday that Arab and Kurdish leaders in Iraq were moving toward settling their differences and he urged 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, Gates called Arab-Kurdish tensions "perhaps the most worrisome issue in Iraq."
Washington fears the outbreak of violence between the groups in the area could tip Iraq back into war.
But 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 semi-autonomous northern enclave. The city's Arab and Turkmen populations fiercely oppose those aims.
Tensions between 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.
Gates said he spoke with Prime Minister Nuri 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 fall back into bloodshed.
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.
ROLE FOR U.S. BEYOND 2011
Gates expressed confidence that U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to reduce troops by next summer would stay on track despite the delayed election and Tuesday's attack. But Washington's role was likely to continue, he said.
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continues a 'train, equip and advise' role beyond the end of 2011," Gates said. "They realize that they're probably not going to be ready."