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COMBAT OUTPOST COBRA, Iraq — Capt. Michael Schmidt stepped on a cultural land mine during a recent meeting with Iraqi military commanders aimed at easing ethnic tensions in Iraq’s disputed north.

“The No. 1 threat is the Sunni insurgency,” Schmidt said in response to an Iraqi commander’s question about the most pressing security concern for northern Diyala province.

“When you say the Sunni insurgency, you are associating all Sunnis,” sniffed Col. Khamees Sulaiman Raja Ahmed, the local Iraqi army commander, himself a Sunni.

Khamees’ Kurdish counterparts then jumped in and the meeting descended into chaotic bickering, the cross talk growing so loud and rapid-fire that the interpreter stopped trying to translate. The meeting abruptly broke up, and the Arab and Kurdish factions ate lunch separately at the base dining hall.

The region: A primerThe current dispute between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs is over land and potential oil revenues in the north of the country, particularly in the area of Kirkuk, but the roots of conflict are far deeper.

Great Britain took control of what is today Iraq after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Britain imposed a monarchy on Iraq and defined its borders without taking into account the politics of the different ethnic and religious groups in the country, including the Kurds. During the British occupation, both Shiites and Kurds fought for independence.

Inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraqi military officers overthrew the monarchy in 1958. Saddam Hussein rose to power, and conducted mass killings and the “Arabization” of the region.

The Kurds have continually sided with the U.S. in hopes of self-governance.

Now, security forces from both Baghdad and the Kurdish region are vying for power in the area. The Iraqi government is not much closer to complying with Article 140 — which requires a census and a referendum to resolve whether Kirkuk and other disputed areas are part of Iraq or the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone — than when the constitution was written in 2005.

Further complicating the difficult task of sorting out who belongs in these areas, there was an influx of Kurds into the disputed zone after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Some were reclaiming land forcibly taken by Saddam’s regime but many Arabs claim some were sent by the three-province Iraqi Kurdistan to inflate Kurdish population numbers.

It was a stark reminder of the monumental task the U.S. faces in trying to mediate what so far has remained an intractable land dispute.

Nearly two months after Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, announced plans to establish trilateral patrols and checkpoints manned by U.S., Arab and Kurdish forces to relieve tension in areas claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, negotiations are moving slowly and communities in the region that would benefit from increased cooperation and trade continue to languish.

A swath of northern Iraq, including the oil-rich region surrounding the city of Kirkuk, is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs and both the central government and Kurdistan Regional Government have been trying to increase their influence by sending soldiers to the area. Several incidents have threatened to turn violent. Odierno’s plan for the trilateral patrols is intended to keep the peace and help resolve the long-simmering land dispute.

‘We are all Iraqis’

At the heart of the conflict along the so-called Green Line — a boundary that has marked the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan since 1991 — is who should qualify as a resident for a long-promised census that is supposed to set the stage for settling the boundary questions once and for all.

But carrying out that census will be complicated because during the 1970s and ‘80s, Saddam Hussein forcibly removed many Kurds and flooded the north with Arabs, while many Arabs accuse the KRG of sending waves of Kurds into the areas after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“What we want to try to do is continue to reduce tensions in the disputed areas so we don’t allow tensions to lead to some sort of violence which could really impact the overall stability inside of Iraq,” Odierno told reporters earlier this month.

In public, both Arab and Kurd commanders preach togetherness.

“It is a shame on all of us to mention nationalities — he is Kurd, he is Arab,” said Lt. Col. Ahmad Nuri, a commander of Kurdish national police in northern Diyala province, during the meeting at Cobra. “We are all Iraqis.”

Privately, though, both sides acknowledge deep divisions, and are skeptical that trilateral patrols will lead to progress on resolving the land dispute.

A senior Kurdish military officer, who works at a joint command center with both Arab and Kurdish forces and is involved in negotiations over trilateral patrols, blamed Arab abuses of Kurdish civilians for the tension in disputed areas.

“Most of it comes from the Iraqi army,” said the Kurdish officer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Only the Kurdish people are coming to us complaining.”

Khamees dismissed Kurdish complaints about the flood of Arabs who came in under Saddam, skewing population figures.

“We all believe in democracy and if anyone wants to move to Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah or Irbil, we can’t prevent them,” he said.

Waiting for the census

What most Iraqi officers seem to agree on is that trilateral military patrols are unlikely to lead to the census, which is promised in Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution.

Under that article, the government must conduct the census of the disputed areas and then hold a referendum to allow residents to decide whether they want to be under direct control of Iraq’s central government or become part of the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone.

Brokering the Kurd-Arab meetings are commanders such as Lt. Col. Joseph Davidson, who said he is optimistic the sessions will help solve the land dispute but conceded that talks about trilateral patrols are still in the early stages.

“I wish Article 140 would have been solved. My job would have been a lot easier. But it’s not and that’s my mission,” he said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, you guys can work together.’”

Davidson said his main aim is to keep the peace, while being fair to both groups.

“Really I’m maintaining the status quo of security,” he said. “I’m a mediator.”

The people most affected by the ongoing disagreement are residents of the disputed areas, and many say they that while both the central and Kurdish governments claim the land, neither government offers much in the way of services.

“The problem here is not safety, it’s that people don’t know, do we belong to Baghdad or the KRG?” said Staff Sgt. Ali Hamid, a police officer in the city of Khanaqin. “When we go to the Diyala government, they say, ‘You belong to the KRG,’ when we go to the KRG they say, ‘You belong to Diyala.’”

Abdullah Muhammad Suleiman, the mayor of the mostly Kurdish town of Kulajo, says both the Sunni Arab-dominated provincial government and the Kurdish government ignore his pleas for clean drinking water and better electricity.

He turned to a U.S. Army lieutenant, and said hopefully, “You can talk to the Diyala province government for us?”

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