Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commander of U.S. Division North, said he expects more U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq's seven northern provinces than elsewhere in the country.
Cucolo commands the 21,000-member division that covers the area from the Baghdad suburbs to Iraq's borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran. He spoke via teleconference with Pentagon reporters from his headquarters near Tikrit.
American forces do nothing without partnering with Iraqi security forces, the general said. "That means all types of operations, from combat when necessary to stability operations -- the full spectrum, partnered," he said. "We don't do anything unilaterally. It's all with our Iraqi partners, in probably the most demographically complex battle space in Iraq."
The area contains the "fault line" between Kurds and Arabs. The oil-rich province and city of Kirkuk remain possible flashpoints, Cucolo said, but he added that leaders on both sides of the divide pause whenever an incident takes place.
Overall, he said, the mission of U.S. forces in the region is to support provincial reconstruction teams, to move toward police primacy in the cities, and to establish capacity in Iraqi forces so they can assume U.S. battle space as American forces withdraw.
U.S. focus has been on "tamping down" violent extremist networks such as al-Qaida in Iraq, the general said. "They still exist," he told reporters. "They've been knocked back pretty hard lately, but still, because they're cellular in nature, still can pack a punch with a high-profile attack."
Mosul - Iraq's third-largest city - remains a problem. Mosul is a microcosm of Iraq, with all the ethnic and sectarian groups present in the nation. "We do not have ... Iraqi police primacy in Mosul yet, because the Iraqi police strength is not sufficient," Cucolo said. Iraqi soldiers maintain peace in the city.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is trying to stay relevant in Mosul, the general said, but Iraqi and U.S. forces have "knocked back" the group's access to weapons, explosives and financing.
"We know this because the ... elements are now resorting to extortion and kidnapping to get their funds," he said. "We know this because the IEDs they're using are much smaller than we've seen in the past. They're trying to rustle up what they can."
Everything is colored by the upcoming elections, Cucolo said. American troops essentially will stand by and be available if the Iraqis encounter something they cannot handle, he said, but he added that he does not expect them to be needed.
Iraqis have a positive attitude, the general said. "Since I've been here, I've been impressed by many things," he said. "I've been impressed by the quality of the Iraqi security forces, particularly the Iraqi army, ... but I'm very impressed with the desire for unity." He said he could see the Kurdish security force in northern Iraq merging with the Iraqi military.
Cucolo said his concerns are the Kurd-Arab tension, any desire to interrupt the seating of the government, and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to assume the battle space.
"Right now, I have Iraqi units that are capable of independent operations at low level - at brigade and below," he said. "Some Iraqi divisions are capable of independent operations, but the institution that gets them spare parts, that gets them bullets, that gets them the things they need to sustain routine operations -- that is still growing. All the right folks are working on it. It's happening. It's just not there yet."