KIRKUK, Iraq, July 14 (UPI) -- The situation in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk is improving, but further concessions are needed before U.S. troops pull out, the top U.S. military official said.
Kirkuk lies at the heart of lingering disputes between the two governments of Iraq. The Kurdish and central governments are at odds over its jurisdiction, while its vast oil reserves are a source of frequent bickering.
Despite simmering tensions, however, U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was impressed watching provincial developments take shape, the U.S. Defense Department reports.
"Overall, (issues here) were more balanced than I thought they would be, based on the kinds of demands I was expecting (and) based on my understanding of the depth of the challenges here historically," he said.
U.S. forces operating in the area told Mullen their top priority for Kirkuk lies in coordinating interactions among the various ethnic communities in the northern province.
Mullen cautioned, however, that national and provincial leaders need to settle any remaining issues as U.S. troops prepare to wind down their mission in Iraq following provincial and national elections in January.
"My message to them today was that we're leaving, and you'd better figure it out," he said.