By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 29, 2009 - Arab and Kurdish Iraqis should take advantage of the remaining time U.S. forces will be in the country to work out their differences, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani here today. Gates met with Kurdish Regional Government leaders at their version of the White House, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said. Gates -- accompanied by Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq -- congratulated Kurdish officials for last week's free and fair elections and said the Kurdish people always have been good friends of the United States.
Under the U.S.-Iraqi agreement signed in December, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Gates urged Kurdish leaders here today and Iraqi government leaders in Baghdad yesterday to take advantage of the remaining American presence to work through their disagreements. Gates delivered the same message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The issues include a law governing distribution of oil revenue, internal boundaries and security. Morrell said Gates asked the leaders "to reach sustainable agreements on these issues." Gates said the United States supports the United Nations task force set up with Arab and Kurdish Iraqis to work through these disagreements.
The disagreements between Kurds and Arabs run deep in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime persecuted the Kurds and tried to "Arabize" whole sections of the country, especially the area around oil-rich Kirkuk. Saddam cleared out Kurdish areas and gave the land to Arab families, launched chemical attacks against Kurdish towns and drove thousands out of the nation.
Gates acknowledged this history during his meetings, Morrell said. "He noted that at every negotiating table, history has a seat," the press secretary said. "The challenge is to put history at the end of the table, and think about the future, rather than the past."
Gates assured Kurdish and Arab leaders that the United States is prepared to offer any help it can "to resolve the disputes in a peaceful manner in accordance with the [Iraqi] constitution," Morrell said. "He reminded his hosts that all of us have sacrificed too much in blood and treasure to see the gains of the last few years lost due to political differences."
An outbreak of violence between Kurdish and Iraqi national security forces would adversely impact the progress the country has made, he added.
Kirkuk is the main flash point between the regional and national government, but not the only one. Kurdish and Iraqi security forces have had confrontations, but they have not escalated to violence. U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish officials are working closely in coordination centers to ensure confrontations are avoided or resolved peacefully, Odierno said during an interview yesterday. The general also said the Arab-Kurd issue is the main driver of instability in Iraq today.
Morrell said the secretary came away from meetings in Baghdad and here believing that all parties want to take advantage of the U.S. offer to deal with these issues sooner rather than later.
"He's optimistic that there can be follow-through on these issues," Morrell said. "They are very difficult issues, and the clock is ticking on our presence in Iraq. He is very much encouraging both sides to get down to work as soon as possible."