The New Iraq Strategy Sends Soldiers into Battle

For all appearances, the U.S. presence in Iraq is slowly winding down. A brigade of U.S. troops (about 3,500 of the 130,000 here) will leave this month and not be replaced; another will follow in the fall. Meanwhile, the Iraqi cabinet today proposed a referendum on the U.S. presence of during national elections in January, which could force an even quicker exit. But even as the United States wraps up here, America's top general in Iraq is contemplating a high-profile, high-risk new assignment for U.S. troops, putting them into the breach between Arab and Kurdish armies, attempting to quell (but possibly inflaming) ethnic tensions. It's a sort of Godfather moment for American forces: just when they think they're getting out, they get pulled back in.

This morning, Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters that U.S. troops may soon begin leading three-way patrols with contentious Iraqi Arab and Kurdish forces in the north. It's the kind of keeping-a-lid-on role America still can, and needs to, play in Iraq.

For months, commanders have worried about friction in the disputed areas along the edges of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Control of the disputed areas is supposed to be sorted out in a long-delayed and faltering process of negotiations and referenda. In the gray areas in the meantime, Arab units in the military have come close to skirmishing with Kurdish forces trying to solidify their de facto authority there by making it a fait accompli. In one case, Baghdad forces (perhaps testing Kurdish mettle) attempted to take control of a local base. In others, the scuffling may have just been caused by miscommunications over what roads each group was supposed to use.

Flare ups like these, if tensions escalate enough, could explode into outright conventional battles between armies with tanks and mortars, probably demolishing the towns caught in the middle. And American commanders have said they won't send troops to separate warring sides.

But bloodshed is forcing the issue. A string of high-casualty car bombings in the northern province of Nineveh have recently added urgency to the American mediation mission. Nineveh, including the major city of Mosul, is the major remaining redoubt for Iraqi Al Qaeda. It's easy for Al Qaeda to exploit the Arab-Kurdish rift. For starters, they can ask for refuge among Arabs by offering to defend them against Kurds. Even more problematic, the Arab-Kurd tensions have left some no-man's lands where no one is providing consistent security; there, militants can move, hide, and conduct attacks.

Odierno calls the gaps "a seam Al Qaeda can move through" and proposes to fill them with Arab, Kurdish, and American troops working together. He says both Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, have asked him to develop a plan in the coming weeks, though they haven't given their final approval.

If the plan has their sincere backing, it could be an important quick fix. Odierno views the arrangement as a temporary "confidence-building measure" that might further entangle Americans in the short term but lay the groundwork for peace that would ultimately make it easier to leave. While the recent bombings don't threaten the stability of the government, he said, they have unleashed recriminations between Arab and Kurdish security forces that would not exist if the two groups cooperated on checkpoints and patrols. "We have found in the past when we have done this that once they become used to working with each other, it becomes very easy," he said. "They just all feel more comfortable if we're there initially."

The plan would allow better oversight of both sides, minimizing the chances for inadvertent confrontations as they move around the north. But the tricky part will be making sure Americans aren't seen to favor one side or the other. The Kurds, known to have been close American allies during the war, might welcome U.S. protection from Baghdad's forces. But to highlight American impartiality, the plan might have U.S. troops introduce Arab patrols into Kurdish-majority areas that have traditionally been patrolled by Kurds. Moreover, Al Qaida could take the opportunity to target Americans for attack, reversing the trend for lower attacks on U.S. forces as they've withdrawn from cities.

American leverage is limited as it withdraws its forces. It has less and less say over how Iraqi forces are treating the population, what missions they conduct, and who they target. This potential deal is a way to give Americans the power they think they need to keep things quiet for their exit, but in doing so it also puts them in more danger.