KIRKUK, IRAQ — Over the past year, hostilities have flared between Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the central government. Attacks and bombings have increased in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which both governments claim as their own. With tensions showing no sign of abating, many fear the violence will only get worse.
Four months ago, Tuz Khormatu, a sleepy town 80 kilometers southeast of Kirkuk, became the new frontline between Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the central government.
Political tensions over oil rights have flared in this disputed area, which is as rich in fossil fuels as it is in diversity. Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians claim Kirkuk as their own.
Colonel Ismael Rasoul Mustafa - who is in charge of this outpost - has been a Kurdish guerrilla since 1986 when he fought for Kurdish independence from Iraq's Ba'ath regime.
"We're not here to stand against the central government, but we're here to defend ourselves. If they attack us like they did before under the previous regime, we have to defend ourselves," said Mustafa.
The city of Kirkuk, an ethnic melting pot, has seen a significant uptick in violence in the past two months. Bombs have targeted Shi'ite worshippers, Kurdish security forces, and Sunni politicians.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned of the danger of ethnic conflict in Iraq, but Sinan Ismael Khalil, a veteran Arab journalist, said that ethnic tensions exist only at a political level and the real reason for the violence is oil.
"It makes us laugh when we hear it's an ethnic conflict, that the disagreements are based on ethnic problems," said Khalil. "What's the reason for all of this? Oil."
Oil at root of disputes
His sentiments are echoed by many of Kirkuk's residents. Ismat Lawerdy, a Christian pharmacist, said that politicians are responsible for Kirkuk's problems.
"Between the people there are no problems. Kurds, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian. The problems is with the politicians. Yes, politicians in Baghdad. Here in Kirkuk there's no difference between Arabs or Kurds or anybody," said Lawerdy.
Hussein Mohammad Hassan, from the Sunni area of Hawijah, agrees that sectarian violence is solely a political tool.
"Because of the politicians we are suffering. Only brotherhood and harmony can save us," said Hassan.
As the violence continues, and with regional elections on the horizon, many residents of Kirkuk feel that their oil wealth is more a curse than a ticket to regional autonomy.