BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Joint patrols between Iraq's largely Arab army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops that U.S. officials hope will build trust have started in tense disputed areas, the U.S. military commander in Iraq has said.
General Ray Odierno, who leads the 107,000-strong U.S. force still deployed in Iraq, said around 70 percent of planned joint patrols, which are being supervised by U.S. soldiers, have been trained and deployed and the rest would follow within days.
"We hope that by the 31st, in a few days, we'll be at 100 percent," Odierno told western media, ending months of speculation about when the controversial operations would begin.
"They all know that this is about protecting the population in these disputed areas who have been targets of al Qaeda and others who are trying to exploit the political differences," he added. "So far so good."
Tensions between semi-autonomous Kurds in their northern enclave and the Arab-led government in Baghdad represent a potentially explosive threat to stability in Iraq almost seven years after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Overall violence has fallen sharply although Sunni Islamist insurgents continue to stage major attacks, such as suicide bombings against three hotels in Baghdad on Monday aimed at undermining the Shi'ite-led government before a March 7 poll.
Ethnic Kurds have staked a claim to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the north, many of which contain massive known oil reserves or potential deposits. Their aspirations to have them wrapped into their region are fiercely opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have come close to blows on several occasions over the past two years as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought to strengthen central government presence in and around disputed areas.
Intervention by the U.S. military has often been the only thing that prevented fighting from breaking out.
Odierno proposed the joint patrols as a way to foster greater trust between the two sides, arguing that Al-Qaeda and other groups were taking advantage of a lack of cooperation between Arab and Kurdish security forces to launch attacks.
Politicians in disputed areas, in particular on the Arab side, have opposed the move, fearing the plan would legitimize the presence of Kurdish fighters in areas where Iraqi Arab leaders thought they had no right to be.
Fouad Zaidan Mustafa, head of the Turkman Doctors Union in Kirkuk, which also includes Arabs, said he believed the Peshmerga could not be trusted.
"We look at this temporary solution like other temporary solutions. A mistake is being used to correct a mistake and we are the ones who will continue to suffer," he said.
Hussein Ali al-Salih, also known as Abu Saddam and head of the district council in the tense, predominantly Sunni Arab town of Hawija southwest of Kirkuk, rejected the idea utterly.
"There is no justification for this. We already have an Iraqi Army and police, and they include all ethnicities and sects," he told Reuters recently.
Odierno said he was pleased with the joint patrols to date.
"There will be some local political challenges to it," he said. "We'll work our way through that."