Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen took command of Multi-National Division — North on Dec. 9.

Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen took command of Multi-National Division — North on Dec. 9. (Heath Druzin/S&S)

TIKRIT, Iraq — A recently installed command team faces many military, civil and economic challenges in trying to further stabilize and provide security for upcoming elections in the ethnically mixed northern half of Iraq.

On Dec. 9, Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen took over command of Multi-National Division — North, which covers almost all of Iraq north of Baghdad, an area the size of Ohio that includes seven provinces, three international borders, even more contentious ethnic borders, and where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds struggle for control.

It also includes Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.

In an interview, Caslen, soft-spoken with graying hair, discussed the future of MND-North, saying it will be a challenge to meet his No. 1 goal, maintaining security gains that have led to a reduction in violence in much of the region over the past year.

The most immediate issue Caslen must deal with is security for the Jan. 31 provincial elections.

U.S. soldiers will tread a fine line between staying in the background and providing protection for voters, he said.

"We are doing extensive planning with the Iraqis," he said. "These are Iraqi elections run by the Iraqis. They aren’t going to be run by the coalition, but in order to have successful elections you have to have security."

Diyala province, sandwiched between Baghdad and semi-autonomous Kurdistan, includes a long border with Iran, where the United States suspects that weapons are smuggled into Iraq, and is still plagued by bombings and sectarian tensions. It includes the provincial capital of Baqouba, once claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq as their capital.

"To Iran, Diyala is the bridge between Iran and Sadr City, Baghad [the stronghold of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr]," Caslen said.

"To the central government, Diyala is the buffer between a Kurdish incursion and to the Shia, (Sunni-dominated) Diyala is a relic of (Saddam’s regime)."

In the far north of Iraq is Mosul, one of the country’s most unsettled cities, where bombings are still common and there is still, Caslen said, "a viable insurgency." In November, an Iraqi army soldier opened fire on U.S. forces, killing two American soldiers. Despite the shooting, Caslen said U.S. and Iraqi security forces are still working side by side in this city of 2 million people.

"The security situation in Mosul is still very tenuous so we find the Iraqi Police to be having a tough time," he said. "But they are very brave and are doing the best they can."

Meanwhile, the fate of Kirkuk is still in limbo. Majority Kurd but with large minorities of Arabs and Turkmen, a long hoped-for referendum on whether Kirkuk will become part of Kurdistan or be under central government control still hasn’t happened.

"Although there is generally calm in Kirkuk city, it can flash in a minute," Caslen said.

Caslen said U.S. forces can act as a go-between for different groups contesting Kirkuk and the vast oil reserves that lie under its desolate landscape.

"The good news is this — in all of these situations not only the military, but the political leaders are talking, and we in the coalition are involved in mediating those issues," he said.

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