Reporting from Khazna, Iraq — At a small but heavily fortified outpost on the edge of this dust-blown town, a contingent of American soldiers has recently taken up residence alongside Kurdish and Arab forces in what is likely to be one of the last new missions undertaken by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Known simply as Checkpoint 3, the outpost in Nineveh province is one of about two dozen erected over the last six months along a line stretching across northern Iraq from Syria in the west to Iran in the east. It marks the ill-defined and highly disputed border between Kurdish- and Arab-controlled territories.
At a time when U.S. forces elsewhere in the country are dismantling smaller bases in preparation either to withdraw or to regroup in larger camps, about 800 U.S. troops have been dispatched to posts along this line.
After U.S. combat troops have completed their withdrawal this summer, leaving behind a force of 50,000 to focus on training and advising Iraqi security forces, these soldiers will remain as advisors. This mission won't be wrapped up until the end of 2011, when the last U.S. troops are scheduled to leave, U.S. military officials say.
The deployment is a sign of how seriously U.S. commanders view the threat of an Arab-Kurdish conflict. An initiative of Army Gen. Ray T. Odierno, the commander of American troops in Iraq, the deployment of U.S., Arab and Kurdish forces was originally billed as a means to protect lightly guarded towns and villages on both sides of the line that were hit last summer by Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bombings.
U.S. commanders worried that the bombings were an attempt to ignite sectarian strife in an already tense area.
American officials say they hope cooperation between the Kurds and Arabs in the fight against Al Qaeda can grow into a longer-term working relationship that reduces the likelihood of conflict between them.
This is the first time U.S. troops have had a regular presence in many of these areas. The locations have been mostly calm through the seven years that the Americans have been in Iraq, but increasingly unstable over the last year.
It is also the first time Arab and Kurdish forces have worked together in these areas. The U.S. soldiers help run checkpoints and mount patrols, while also encouraging their Arab and Kurdish counterparts to do things such as play volleyball and dominoes as a way of learning to get along.
"They live together, work together and they become family," said Army Col. Max Dietrich, who oversees the effort in Nineveh along with Arabs and Kurds at a coordination center in the city of Mosul. "There's a lot of respect, and some of them are friends."
At Checkpoint 3, about 20 American soldiers live in small tents with Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers, and help supervise the control of traffic into the town.
Khazna, which had previously been protected only by a single peshmerga guard post, was the scene in August of a double suicide truck bombing that killed 35 people as they slept. Many residents feel reassured by the new post's heavy fortifications, said peshmerga Sgt. Maj. Rashid Suleiman.
But he worries about what will happen to the new relationship between Iraqi and Kurdish forces when the U.S. troops eventually leave. "There are no tensions between us now, but having the U.S. here to supervise us is a big boost," he said.
At stake is a belt of territory hugging the border of the self-governing region of Kurdistan. Occupied in 2003 by the Kurds, who want it to be annexed to Kurdistan, the disputed territory includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as this hotly contested part of northern Nineveh province that last year teetered on the edge of outright war.
The initiative has already had an effect. The Arab governor of Nineveh province, Atheel Najafi, was blocked a year ago from visiting a Kurdish town by protesters throwing tomatoes and eggs, sending tensions skyrocketing. Now, a mechanism has been established under which the governor may travel into Kurdish-controlled territory by giving advance notice. Last month, he drove from Mosul, the provincial capital, through the disputed territories to Irbil, the seat of the Kurdish regional government, for talks with top Kurdish officials.
These talks on forging cooperation are focusing on ways to replace peshmerga in the disputed territories with Iraqi security forces of Kurdish origin, said Rafi Issawi, Iraq's deputy prime minister, who is overseeing the negotiations.
But no progress has been made on bringing an end to a yearlong Kurdish boycott of Nineveh's Arab-controlled provincial government. Nor is there any resolution of the broader issues such as the future status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, or the relationship between provinces and the central government.
None of these major issues are likely to be settled at least until a new government is formed in Baghdad in the wake of March elections, something observers say could still be months away.
In many ways, the U.S. troops are marking time, waiting to see which will come first, a political settlement or their departure, said Joost Hiltermann of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"There's been some progress, the rhetoric has gone down, and the overall situation has improved. So far, so good," he said. "But if there's no progress on the political front, whatever military steps are taken on the ground are not going to survive."