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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.

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Although Mosul is at about 60 percent Sunni Arab and 25 percent Kurdish, the majority of the soldiers deployed here are Kurdish. It's a difficult mix in a city that has large numbers of almost every Iraqi minority – a mix that potentially makes it a tinderbox for sectarian violence.

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US soldiers on the ground, as well as their commanders, say Iraqi forces, which have more than doubled in number over the past year, have made huge strides since they arrived.

"For the first few months when we got here [it] was a fight every day – it was hard to get them to come out," says Sgt. Christopher Sherman with the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

"Usually when we roll up now they've handled the situation on their own. For the most part these guys stay in uniform, they do their jobs, they search the vehicles – these guys are taking pride in what they're doing," he says, looking out on a rebuilt road that had been too dangerous for either Americans or Iraqis when his unit arrived more than a year ago.

Earlier this year, the US and Iraqi surge of troops that helped stabilize Baghdad pushed many insurgents north.

"At our height in Mosul, we had upwards of 50 attacks a day," says Maj. Adam Boyd, the regiment's intelligence officer. "We are now well under 10 and most days under five right now."

Officials hope provincial elections in January will help stabilize the city, where the insurgency has been fueled by unemployment and the lasting effects of dismantling the army and de-Baathification. There were an estimated 1,500 Iraqi Army generals in Mosul alone when the US dissolved Iraq's Army after it toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Everyone in this province wants elections," says Major Boyd. "Even the insurgents insofar as they do not want to do anything to disrupt the support they may be able to obtain from the population. You can intimidate a population only so far and once you cross that line you no longer have a base of support to conduct operations."

While Americans are likely to remain here for some time, plenty of pitfalls await them as Iraqi forces will also take a larger role. Recently American soldiers became enmeshed in a gunfight amid the confusion of a wedding convoy.

The convoy passed an Iraqi checkpoint with children waving and dancing and drivers blaring their horns in celebration. Red plastic flowers spelled out "Love" on the hood of one of the cars.

Less than a minute later gunfire broke out. From nearby US Humvees, it was hard to tell where the shots came from. The US soldiers responded with a hail of machine gun fire at a rifle position that appeared to be an abandoned building.

When the shooting stopped, platoon leader Lt. John Parlee jumped out to sort out what just happened. No one was injured.

"One of your police was shooting at us," he angrily told his Iraqi Army counterpart in charge of the checkpoint.

Lt. Saed Mohammed took away the rifle of a young policeman who had been firing in the air to celebrate the wedding. Officials later said an insurgent fired at the same time from a nearby building.

"We're all trying to do the right thing but it's so hard to tell who's who," said US Army Sgt. Ryan Madris as the soldiers drove away from the checkpoint.