BAGHDAD -- A U.S. commander in Iraq says security in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk has recently improved with cooperation between the Iraqi Army and police and U.S. forces, setting the stage for a successful census to be taken in the multiethnic region, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reports.
A national census scheduled for October has been postponed until December 5 due to political and security concerns in disputed areas like Kirkuk.
Colonel Larry Swift, commanding officer of U.S. forces in Kirkuk, told RFI on October 13 that the role of his forces is "to advise and assist the Iraqi police and army in securing the coming census in the province."
He added that U.S. troops are "helping to synchronize the efforts of the police and the efforts of the army together, and we fill in and provide what additional capabilities are required."
Swift confirmed recent complaints, mainly by Arabs in Kirkuk, about what they say are attempts to drive them out of the province. He said that "some group appears to have been intimidating Arab families and some Kurdish families in the city...They appear to be visiting people at night and handing [them] threatening letters. There is no place for such activity in Kirkuk, and the police are investigating because these actions are intolerable."
He described the Kurdish security agency known by the name Asayish as "a controversial organization...They are capable of doing some excellent work, but I understand they are not recognized by all as a legitimate force because of the disputed nature of the Kirkuk Province."
Kurds and Turkomans consider Kirkuk their cultural capital and thousands have returned to the city since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many of the returnees were forced to leave Kirkuk under Arabization and ethnic cleansing programs instituted by Hussein. The returns have raised ethnic tensions in the city and led to several acts of violence.
Police in Kirkuk have conducted search operations in Arab areas looking for wanted people and illegal weapons. Swift explained that "in the course of these operations, the Iraqi police have detained individuals who are not registered in the city."
"I understand why the Arab leadership is worried," Swift said. "This is a very sensitive issue, especially in light of the census, and we are working hard to ensure that the law is enforced but is done so in a way that is even across all ethnicities."
Khalid al-Mafarraji, a spokesman for the Arab Political Council, the Arab community's largest political organization in Kirkuk, told RFI the Arabs "are very concerned that as U.S. forces draw down, responsibility for security in the province will be assumed by a single party, which is why we have repeatedly proposed that security should be the joint responsibility of all three communities -- Arabs, Turkomans, and Kurds."
The Arabs accuse the Kurds of "re-Kurdifying" the province by bringing in thousands of Kurds in recent years.
Swift said the Kirkuk "police chief, the Arab bloc, myself, the United Nations, the [Provincial Reconstruction Team], and the governor have been meeting together to resolve this very, very sensitive issue."
Kirkuk has a population of some 850,000 people and is located some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad.