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As Iraq calms, Mosul remains a battle front

US forces may stay in the volatile northern city beyond the June deadline for Americans to pull back to bases.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2008

Confusion: A US lieutenant (l.) and his Iraqi counterpart after an accidental firefight.

Jane Arraf

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Mosul, Iraq

Attacks have dropped dramatically across Iraq, falling by 80 percent since March, when US and Iraqi forces were locked in deadly fights with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen. Today conditions in many parts of the country appear ripe for US forces to begin pulling back and for Iraqis to take the lead.

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But in the northern city of Mosul, violence still rages. US and Iraqi forces continue to battle the latest incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which considers the city a key asset in its self-declared Islamic state. Mosul's location near the Syrian border, where foreign fighters cross into Iraq, adds to its strategic importance. The gains here are fragile, and neither Iraqi nor American military leaders can afford to see it return to insurgents' hands.

So when US troops withdraw to their bases next June under an agreement with the Iraqi government, there's a good chance they will stay put in Mosul, according to American and Iraqi officials.

"In this climate we can't do without American forces," says Mosul Mayor Zuhair al-Aaraji. "Our government is still too weak to fully support the Iraqi forces." Last Saturday Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of American forces in Iraq, said that despite the joint US-Iraqi security pact that calls for US troops to leave Iraqi cities, some battalions could remain in urban centers. "It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," he said.

He acknowledged that Mosul is one place where Americans could remain. "There are still some issues in Mosul that we have to work through," said General Odierno.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), passed by the Iraqi parliament in November after months of heated debate, does allow for some US forces to remain active in Iraqi cities, as long as Iraqis ask them to stay.

"No other SOFA agreement we have had in history gives us a timeline to remove ourselves," says one US official, who did not want to be identified. Military officials say the US troops will also likely be asked to stay on in Baquba, in volatile Diyala Province, and possibly parts of Tikrit.

"[Mosul] is a miniature Iraq. We have all different languages, different religions … for that reason Mosul is hard to control," says Iraqi Army Col. Dildar Dosky.

"I want the Americans to stay – our Army is young – we need a few more years," says Colonel Dosky, a battalion commander with the 2nd Iraqi Army Division.

Despite the constant potential for dangerous misunderstandings between US soldiers and an Iraqi population whose culture is still alien to them, the American presence here has served as the glue that keeps Mosul's fractures from widening.