Iraqi Kurds are rushing back into an ethnically mixed and oil-rich region of northern Iraq, an area many thousands fled during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have strong support from the U.S. military as they extend their influence beyond the traditional boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kirkuk sits on a hot and dusty desert plain about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. The city has 850,000 residents: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians. And Kirkuk is surrounded by one of Iraq's biggest oil fields, which has provided jobs and pumped money into the local economy since the 1920s.
Ethnic divisions run deep in Kirkuk. The Kurds have long been the largest group in town, but they do not have a majority. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein moved to reduce Kurdish influence in the town by moving thousands of Arab families into Kirkuk. Thousands of Kurds were thrown out of their houses and many fled to nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, where they enjoyed protection during the 1990s under an American- and British-patrolled "no-fly" zone.
When Baghdad fell to U.S. forces on April 9, it triggered a rush of Kurds back to Kirkuk to stake their claim to property and power.
"There is a lot of ethnic tension in the area because you have four major groups and Saddam's "Arabization" process was mainly done here in the Kirkuk region, where many Kurdish families were forced out, Arabs moved in so Saddam could [try to] maintain the Arab majority up in this region," said Major Josslyn Aberle, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, who has been monitoring the situation. "Resettlement is a big issue, and it is an underlying cause for a lot of tension in the area. Saddam's regime was very good at keeping the ethnic groups fighting against each other."
Ethnic violence in and around Kirkuk in mid-May left about 30 people dead and one American soldier wounded.
Kirkuk has been relatively quiet since then, but there has been controversy over the U.S. Army's efforts to install a provisional city council.
Last Saturday, a convention of 300 area residents convened to chose new city leaders was shocked when U.S. soldiers arrested five Arab delegates suspected of high-level involvement in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Each of the four main ethnic groups got to pick six of their members to sit on the city council, but Arab delegates cried foul. They objected because of the arrests, and because Kurds got five of the six independent seats chosen by American military officers.
For the Kurds, the election was a dream come true. One of the new Kurdish councilmen, Ali Salhi, said it culminates his long struggle against Saddam Hussein.
"I am enjoying every second of it," said Ali Salhi. "I waited for this for 32 years. And I worked for it. I never quit for one second, from the day I got out of jail, crippled after I had an execution order on me, and I determined that I would work until he is gone or I am dead."
The commander of American troops in northern Iraq, Major General Raymond Odierno, denies that the transition to democracy in his region is skewed to favor the Kurds.
General Odierno admits uniformed Kurdish militiamen, called peshmerga, are being allowed to keep their weapons because they were part of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. But he says he will not continue to allow the Kurds to evict Arabs at gunpoint from houses once occupied by Kurdish families.
"We will not allow anyone to forcibly remove anybody from their house," he asserted. "We are going to have to develop a process that allows us to determine the rightful owner of the property. This is a very complicated issue. The Arabs are victims in this process, because there are a lot of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk who maybe didn't want to be moved here. They would rather be where they were born."
General Odierno says the resettlement issue will be a major test of the Kurds' respect for the rule of law.
"The Kurds are great allies and I think they have a great role in the future of this country and this is one way they can prove that they are going to be a part of this democracy for a long time to come," said general Odierno.
Iraq's neighbors are watching developments closely in the Kurdish region. Turkey is especially vigilant because of its own restive Kurdish population.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders say they want to use their special relationship with the Americans to prevent neighboring countries from meddling in their affairs.
"We are being supported by the Americans," commented Abdul Razaq Merza, a minister in the Iraqi Kurdistan government. "We are going to ask [for] their support, their advice. But not Turkey, not Iran, not Syria, not any other of the surrounding countries are going to have the right to intervene in our own internal affairs."
There is a lot at stake in the Kirkuk region, oil production began rising after the United Nations lifted sanctions on Iraqi exports.
Oil revenues once sustained Saddam Hussein's lavish lifestyle. Now Kirkuk's city elders hope oil will put more money into the local economy and create opportunities that could help soothe the ethnic rivalries in post-war Iraq.