GUY RAZ, host:
While the U.S. considers sending more troops into Afghanistan, President Obama remains committed to reducing forces in Iraq. The American commander there is focused on a tense strip of land in the north that's claimed by both ethnic Kurds and Arabs.
Now to tackle the problem, General Ray Odierno proposed joint patrols in the area with both Kurdish and Arab soldiers, an idea the Iraqi government in Baghdad initially rejected. But American military leaders say joint security measures are already working in northern Iraq, though not all Iraqi politicians are happy about it.
NPR's Quil Lawrence has the story.
QUIL LAWRENCE: The largest hydroelectric dam in Iraq is north of Mosul, holding back a trillion gallons of water. Earlier this year, the government in Baghdad sounded the alarm: No government forces were guarding the aging dam. A single car bomb there could unleash a flood that might kill half a million people in Mosul and other cities along the Tigris River.
Brigadier General ROBERT BROWN (Deputy Commanding General, Multi-National Division-North): The central government got word of this in Baghdad and say, hey, get Iraqi army forces up to the dam immediately.
LAWRENCE: Gen. Robert Brown commands U.S. forces in the province around Mosul. He says the government was ignoring the fact that the dam has been guarded for years by Kurdish defense forces, or peshmerga, who had realized the danger in 2004. When the mostly Arab Iraqi army reached the dam, they walked into a standoff with the Kurdish peshmerga.
Brig. Gen. BROWN: Of course, both sides think the worst - the peshmerga are thinking, well, the army's coming to kick us out. You know, when the army's going to the dam, they're thinking, hey, the peshmerga aren't going to leave.
LAWRENCE: It's not the first time that Kurds and Arabs have nearly come to blows. But Brown says the Mosul dam has turned into a positive example. With some help from the Americans, the Kurds and Arabs started protecting the dam together. In fact, when the Iraqi army arrived, its officers soon realized they hadn't arranged for supplies, and the Kurdish soldiers ended up sharing their food and water.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
LAWRENCE: Last week, General Brown choppered up to the Mosul dam, which is now protected by about 450 Kurdish peshmerga and the same number of Iraqi army soldiers. The plan was to formally thank the peshmerga for protecting the dam over the past five years.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Kurdish soldiers saluted and stamped their feet at attention as General Brown read out their names and handed out citations. The only problem was that almost no Arabs turned out for the ceremony. The Iraqi commander in the province, General Hassan Abbas, canceled at the last minute.
The local Kurdish liaison to the Iraqi army says the Arab general often finds an excuse not to be seen with the peshmerga. Cooperation between Kurds and Arabs is still politically sensitive in Iraq. The American proposal of joint Kurd-Arab patrols was immediately embraced by Kurdish leaders, who have good working relations with the U.S. Army going back for 20 years. The fact that Kurds liked it may have been enough to make Iraqi Arab leaders wary, especially in an election year with strong Arab nationalist feelings.
The Arab governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, rejects the idea of any Kurdish forces in his province. Nujaifi says even if the Kurdish security were needed in the past to secure the dam, they're not welcome anymore.
Governor ATHEEL AL-NUJAIFI (Ninewah Province): I don't know what happened there, and I don't care. Nobody asked them to come. Now, we ask them to go.
LAWRENCE: Arab politicians like Nujaifi fear that joint patrols will help the Kurds keep control of hundreds of towns and villages they have occupied since 2003. Nujaifi claims the Kurdish soldiers have abused and even murdered Arabs under their control. The Kurds say they moved into those areas, including parts of Mosul, to protect Kurdish civilians from the same sort of repression.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) you have to get close to the mic (unintelligible).
Brig. Gen. BROWN: Okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LAWRENCE: At a news conference after the ceremony at the Mosul dam, General Brown was anxious to accentuate the positive, despite the politics back in the capital.
Brig. Gen. BROWN: It's a great success story, and both sides point to that and say, you know, we can work together better to defeat the terrorists. The lower level you get, the less tension there is. Distrust can cause rumors, but the more you get them together, the more they point towards a brighter future.
LAWRENCE: Most of the questions for Brown had to do with the possible joint patrols that might be next. Brown avoided the subject perhaps because the U.S. Army doesn't want the idea to look like it's being imposed by Americans.
After a few months of letting the controversy blow over, a senior advisor to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki says the joint patrols probably are the best way to prevent conflict between Kurds and Arabs, and that they may start soon along the disputed boundaries of northern Iraq.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News at the Mosul dam.
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