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News | April 26, 2009

Mullen cautions Iraq on Arab-Kurd confrontations

ERBIL, Iraq (April 25, 2009) – Iraqi Kurds and Arabs must compromise to realize the full potential of the country, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said during a visit here Saturday.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with the president and prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government areas in Iraq. He also visited the U.S. Regional Reconstruction Team for the area.

Mullen said there have been tense times between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, but that any disagreements must be worked out. Cool heads must prevail, the chairman said.

“An outbreak of violence between the peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) and the Iraqi security forces would adversely impact the progress the country has made, and I told the Kurdish leaders that,” Mullen said during the meeting with reconstruction team. “They know this must not be allowed to happen.”

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is a flash point between the regional government and the national government. There have been confrontations between the peshmerga and Iraqi security forces – most recently in February – but they have no escalated to violence.

Mullen was struck by the willingness to discuss and compromise from President Massoud Barzani in his meeting. The president also told Mullen that any solution to the PKK problem with Turkey, but be a political one. The PKK is a radical Kurdish group launching terrorist attacks inside neighboring Turkey.

Development is key to the region’s future, Mullen said. “This is the civilian face of the Iraq surge,” Lucy Tamlyn, the chief of the Regional Reconstruction Team, said to Mullen. Tamlyn is an economic officer for the State Department. Her most recent assignment before taking the job was in the African nation of Chad. Now she is in charge of development for the three provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government – Erbil, Dahuk and Sulamaniyah.

Unlike the more well-known provincial reconstruction teams in the rest of Iraq and in Afghanistan, there are no U.S. servicemembers on the team, although they work with American servicemembers based in the region.

The civilian workforce manages a large portfolio of projects aimed at improving life in the three provinces. “The Kurds like us and they don’t want us to leave,” Tamlyn said. “We’re working with the Kurds on goals they have set including essential services, rule of law issues and developing the private sector.” The group also has a strong public diplomacy outreach effort.

The area is peaceful and has been a “permissive environment” since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, she said. This means that team members are able to work closely with Kurdish officials on projects across the region. They are also able to train and mentor Kurdish Regional Government officials.

Erbil is a booming city in the traditional sense. There are many new buildings and ground has been cleared for even more. Shops are modern and clean and there are road construction projects throughout the city. “It gets more primitive out(side) of the cities, but that is part of the process as we move forward,” Tamlyn said.

The U.S. team is helping the Kurds build the infrastructure which includes water projects, electricity and the oil and gas infrastructure.