Odierno: Dispute In North Could Still Destabilize Iraq Violence in Iraq is at its lowest levels since 2003. But Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says a dispute between the semi-autonomous Kurdish north and Baghdad over control of oil-rich cities such as Kirkuk could lead to renewed instability if left unresolved.

Odierno: Dispute In North Could Still Destabilize Iraq

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The US military announced that nationwide, attacks have fallen to the lowest level since the war began. But there are continuing concerns. The overall commander of US forces in Iraq is warning that a brewing dispute in the north could lead to renewed instability if left unresolved. General Ray Odierno spoke with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro during an inspection tour yesterday.

(Soundbite of drill)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dressed in blue uniforms, a group of police cadets salute in formation at the Amarah Police Academy in southern Iraq.

General RAY ODIERNO (Top U.S. Commander in Iraq): How long have you been training?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: General Odierno is here on a so-called battlefield circulation. The man in charge of the U.S. war effort frequently traveled to different parts of the country to talk to his commanders in the field and see for himself what's going on. While in Amarah in an interview with NPR, General Odierno said that he was satisfied with the general security situation in Iraq these days.

Gen. ODIERNO: The level of incidents in Iraq are still at the lowest levels they've been since the summer of 2003, so from a security standpoint, it's going pretty well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Though the city of Mosul and nearby Diyala province are still areas of concern, he added. But Odierno says that by far his biggest worry right now are the tensions between the semiautonomous Kurdish north and Baghdad's central government.

Gen. ODIERNO: What I'm concerned about is I want those to be dealt with diplomatically, politically, not through violence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Odierno says the U.S. military is mediating the dispute, which centers around territorial control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas in Iraq's north.

Gen. ODIERNO: Our role is to ensure that it does not come to violence and is solved in a peaceful way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the future status of the Kurdish forces, called the peshmerga, who are loyal to the Kurdish regional government, needs to be addressed. Though militias in Iraq are illegal, the Kurds have been allowed to maintain theirs. The fear is that if trouble between Baghdad and the Kurds escalates, the Iraqi army and the peshmerga could clash. Despite those worries and others, Odierno is considering more U.S. troop reductions this year, ahead of parliamentary elections.

Gen. ODIERNO: In August, September timeframe, I will look at how things are going, and I will make another decision on whether I think we should either reduce our presence more. And that assessment will be based on do I think I have enough forces to ensure that we have a peaceful, successful national election? If I believe we can do that with less forces, then we will off-ramp some forces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eventually there will be only around 50,000 Americans here, down from just under 140,000 now. Odierno said shortly after that, U.S. combat operations in Iraq will end.

Gen. ODIERNO: People can characterize it any way they want, but if the mission says we're not going to be doing combat operations, we will not be doing combat operations. The president has been very clear that combat operations will be over on the 31st of August of 2010.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know that the military has always not been a fan of timetables. Timetables don't work because you push things that at a - perhaps a pace that isn't organic. Do you feel that that might be one of the perils of this timetable?

Gen. ODIERNO: Now that security and violence has gotten better, now that we've had a successful provincial election and if we can get through the national election, which I say we will peacefully, I believe those are all really big indicators that it's time for us to leave and allow them to take more and more control.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Odierno acknowledges nothing is ever certain here.

Gen. ODIERNO: The bottom line is we will continue to assess this. I believe the strategy we've put in place is a good one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says if things remain on track, the Iraqis will be capable of assuming full security control when the last American soldier leaves in 2011.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Amarah.

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