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A new Iraqi military offensive is under way in this still violent northern city, but the worry is not only the insurgents who remain strong here. American commanders are increasingly concerned that Mosul could degenerate into a larger battleground over the fragile Iraqi state itself.

The problems are old but risk spilling out violently here and now. The central government in Baghdad has sent troops to quell the insurgency here, while also aiming at what it sees as a central obstacle to both nationhood and its own power: the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north and the Kurds’ larger ambitions to expand areas under their control.

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.

The Kurds are resisting, underscoring yet again the depth of ethnic and sectarian divisions here and the difficulty of creating a united Iraq even when overall violence is down. Tension has risen to the point that last week American commanders held a series of emergency meetings with the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials, seeking to head off violence essentially between factions of the Iraqi government.

“It’s the perfect storm against the old festering background,” warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces and the Kurdish region.

Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will “step aside,” Thomas said, rather than “have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker.”

The competing agendas between the Kurds and central government have nearly provoked violence before, but each side eventually grasped the risks. That may be the case now. At the moment, the Americans are hoping to refocus each side on fighting the insurgency rather than each other.

But the tensions underline that achieving basic security is only the first step toward deeper progress in Iraq — and that much remains, bitterly, unresolved.

Mosul falls outside the borders of the Kurdish region, but Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party came to control the provincial government after Sunni Arabs boycotted the provincial elections in 2005. The Kurds say, however, that they will not abandon the city until they reclaim five areas in Nineveh province, putting them on a political collision course with the central government.

Tense personal relations between al-Maliki and Barzani have worsened, officials on all sides say, after a standoff in September between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish security forces, the pesh merga, in eastern Diyala province. American forces helped contain that confrontation.