DIBBIS, Iraq — When U.S. Col. Ryan Gonsalves strapped on his helmet and body armor and climbed into his mine-resistant vehicle on a recent Saturday afternoon, he wasn't heading to battle.
The commander was rushing off to mediate the latest dispute between the Kurds, who dominate the local government, and the Shiite Muslim Arab-led Iraqi army, which is trying to assert its authority in this contested area in northern Iraq.
Gonsalves, who's from Fort Hood, Texas, had just taken a complaint from the mostly Kurdish police department and was now off to meet with the Iraqi army across town.
As American forces shift their focus from combat operations to peacekeeping efforts because of recent security gains, Gonsalves and his soldiers from the U.S. Army's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, are working against the clock to mediate a long-standing dispute over oil and land and federalism and nationalism in the battleground of Kirkuk. The sense of urgency: Washington plans to pull out combat troops in August 2010. If left unresolved, the Kirkuk issue could explode.
Kurdish parties have dispatched forces well south of the Green Line, a United Nations-created boundary that's marked the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan since 1991. Arabs say that the Kurds are seizing land that rightfully belongs to them, while Kurds say the land was theirs until former dictator Saddam Hussein purged them from it. In this bitter contest, both sides have employed tactics that range from intimidation and detention to murder.
The central government and Kurdish troops nearly came to blows last year in Khanaqeen, in neighboring Diyala province, when Iraqi forces tried to move into the area. Stepping in, the Americans averted imminent clashes.
It's easy to see why the sectarian divisions could prove even more explosive: The region houses what's thought to be the sixth largest oil reserve in the world.
The political battle between Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government and the Kurdish-controlled north is almost certain to be the biggest hot-button issue in Iraq in the coming years. Despite their fiery differences, the two sides agree on this: A full-fledged civil war will break out if the matter goes unresolved.
"In the absence of U.S. mediation, the situation may quickly deteriorate into violence, assassinations and maybe war," said Haider al Musawi, a political analyst based in Baghdad. "The politicians seek supremacy, and the people want peace. It has all the makings of a time bomb."
American military leaders say they'll devote all their resources to stop Arab and Kurdish security forces such as the peshmerga from taking up arms. "If something happens, we'll flood the zone," said Maj. Christopher Norrie, a 2nd Brigade operations officer from Winamac, Wis.
The Obama administration's plans to withdraw combat troops by August 2010, however, could create a vacuum in peacekeeping efforts, raising the question of who'll take on that responsibility after their departure.
"I foresee us leaving and they either solve it politically or the possibility of a direct confrontation between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga looms large," said retired Col. Jeffrey McCausland, a professor at Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council in New York.
The U.S. military's emerging role as a hands-on peace broker in the Kirkuk issue comes weeks after the political party of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Arab, took a plurality in nine of 14 governorates in Iraq's provincial elections Jan. 31; polls weren't held in Kurdistan and Kirkuk. Mostly free of violence, the vote boosted Maliki's reputation as a law-and-order kind of leader after his administration clamped down on Shiite militias in the south and Baghdad. The poll also showed that voters favored a strong national government over the Kurdistan-like federalism that the premier's rivals had endorsed.