By Jim Loney
KIRKS, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's experimental Golden Lions security force made up of old foes is getting ready to stand alone as U.S. forces withdraw along the potentially explosive fault line of Kirkuk, the disputed northern oil city.
Assembled as a beacon of stability in a volatile mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, the Golden Lions brought together Iraqi soldiers and police with the peshmerga of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region under the watchful eye of U.S. troops, who act as a buffer between the wary allies.
In the coming weeks, U.S. soldiers will leave the Iraqi and Kurdish forces increasingly alone on checkpoints and patrols in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala provinces, in areas claimed by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital Arbil.
With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq scheduled for year-end, more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, American troops hope the members of the amalgamated force can overcome years of animosity and hold together.
"We don't have any differences between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army," said veteran peshmerga Captain Ahmed Mohammed, waving toward a Golden Lions patrol in the Gurga Chal neighborhood of Kirkuk. "We look at them like we are the same."
Whether that goodwill between historic foes lasts may help determine the near-term fate of the tinder-box city considered a likely flashpoint for future conflict in Iraq.
Sitting atop a vast sea of oil -- by some estimates 4 percent of the world's reserves -- Kirkuk is secured by the Arab-led central government but claimed by Arbil, which says the city is predominantly and historically Kurdish.
The Kurdish and Iraqi forces came together more than a year ago across northern Iraq but in small numbers; now about 1,200 in the three provinces. By comparison, the Iraqi security forces number more than 600,000, and the peshmerga at least 100,000.
A Golden Lions battalion, about 380, trains in Kirkuk.
The lion is a symbol of fighting strength for Iraqis.
"It's very good. You know why? Because both sides, now they have become like spies against each other," said Colonel Bethune Mohammed, the police chief of Keokuk's Azadi district. "Each side is not letting anyone do anything wrong."
On a recent patrol of upscale neighborhoods around Kirk, the Iraqis arrived in Ford and Chevy pickups, the Americans in massive CRAP armored vehicles.
Residents hawked as the one-time enemies -- the Kurd fought guerrilla battles against Iraq's army for years and exploited the 1980s Iran-Iraq war to launch attacks -- walk side by side.
While there's been talk of a single uniform for the Golden Lions, for now the Kurd wear distinctive green camouflage while the Iraqi police are in blue and the Iraqi army in khaki.
The Iraqis take the lead. The Americans hang back, watching.
"They all sleep in the same tent, they all live together, eat together," said 1st Lieutenant Matthew James Trout, an American soldier who patrols with the Golden Lions.
He said he has seen little sign of ethnic tension. "All the squabbles are the same ones that I see with my soldiers.
Neighborhood children bring glasses of water on trays to the sweating soldiers, who are clad in battle gear.
"I like to see the Iraqi and posh force. I feel safer," said Reb war Saba Mohammed, a soda factory worker.
But U.S. troops must stay, he quickly adds. "U.S. soldiers have to be a referee between these people and bring them together and talk to them, until Kirk belongs to Kurdish."
Most Kirk want U.S. troops, now about 46,000 strong, to remain beyond year-end, when a security pact between Washington and Baghdad lapses. The Americans are seen as a critical buffer between factions.
"We're going to be so happy if the United States wants to stay here," said Mohammed.
For the moment U.S. military leaders see the Lions as a success story and express optimism that they can continue joint patrols as U.S. soldiers pull back. Their hope is that the force can set an example, particularly for squabbling politicians.
"It shows how everybody can work together. Everybody will work together and security comes first with a lot of people," said Colonel Michael Pap pal, commander of the U.S. Devil Brigade in Kirk. "It all depends on the politicians ... the hard part is the politics involved in the province."
But historic animosities are not easily forgotten in Iraq.
Mohammed, the plain-spoken police chief, said 27 members of his family, including his wife, two children, parents and eight siblings died when Sad dam's forces deployed poison gas against Kurd in 1988, killing thousands.
"No!" he said sharply when asked whether the Lions would get along after the Americans withdraw. "I swear to God, three days after you guys (Americans) leave, you can hear it blowing up. But, God willing, you guys will never leave us. God willing."
(Editing by Jim Loney)