WASHINGTON – Inter-ethnic security cooperation between Arabs and Kurds is up in northern Iraq as the U.S. drawdown continues toward its Dec. 31 deadline, the commander of U.S. troops in the area said Thursday.
U.S. troop presence in the region has dropped from about 10,000 when the 4th Infantry Division assumed command of headquarters there nearly a year ago, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via a video uplink from Iraq. The number is 5,000 now, and will drop to a much smaller – but still unspecified – troop presence when the division leaves Iraq by the end of October.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno made news earlier this month when he warned that too many troops left in the country could be “counterproductive,” and that the Arab-Kurd conflict in the north seemed to be settling down.
How many U.S. troops, if any, stay on in the country next year is still being discussed by U.S. and Iraqi leaders. Throughout Iraq, U.S. troops still number in the “mid-40,000s,” Perkins said, but the number will be shrinking rapidly in coming months. Outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said last week the number would be at approximately 40,000 troops by Oct. 1.
“That is our big focus right now, that we withdraw first of all in a manner … that provides force protection to U.S. soldiers,” Perkins said, “and that second of all, as we do that the Iraqi security forces are able to stand up on their own and that we don’t have an implosion.”
U.S. troops have pulled back from 22 checkpoints along the disputed border between northern Iraq and the rest of the country, Perkins said, and now provide only supervision rather than constant monitoring. Arabs and Kurds now share control of the checkpoints.
“We really have not had one incident out at one of those checkpoints or in the area around it since the U.S. has left,” he said.
The next step is to transition control of the checkpoints to senior leaders from both ethnic groups, he said.