As the July 1 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq draws nearer, a power struggle between ethnic and religious groups long oppressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein is growing more intense and deadly. A push by ethnic Kurds into lands formerly held by Iraqi Arabs is creating a potential flash point for wider civil unrest.
Every Saturday, 32-year-old housewife Juwana Azad takes a break from her daily chores to have afternoon tea at her house with her two closest friends, Amira Hassan Abdullah and Nissren Ali, and their children. The three women met several years ago when they became neighbors in a middle class Kirkuk suburb, where a mix of Iraqis of various ethnic backgrounds has lived side by side for years.
Juwana Azad, who is a Kurd, says she has always considered her Arab and Turkmen neighbors as fellow Iraqis. Her friend, Amira Hassan Abdullah, an Iraqi Arab, adds that in this neighborhood, there has never been tension between the ethnic groups.
But Nissren Ali, an ethnic Turkmen, disagrees. She says some of her Turkmen friends have been quietly urging her to move to another neighborhood where the Turkmen people are in the majority. They fear trouble is on the way.
Ms. Ali said that a year ago, she rarely heard anyone in Kirkuk talk about someone's ethnicity, but that has been changing in recent months. She says there is pressure building in the city for people to separate along ethnic lines.
Evidence of that growing pressure lies just outside this bustling town of 700,000 people, where a refugee camp has been growing rapidly since February. The squalid camp, made up of tents and ramshackle houses, is home to some 10,000 Kurdish families who have returned to Kirkuk to reclaim lands from which they were expelled by Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party.
There are no exact figures available. But it is estimated that between 1991 and 2002, Saddam's army drove away as many as 150,000 Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and outlying villages to make way for Arabs. As part of a process called Arabization, Saddam sought to permanently alter the region's ethnic makeup in order to lay sole claim to Kirkuk's massive oil reserves.
With the dictator gone, tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish people have been migrating back to the region. Coalition officials say their return has forced as many as 100,000 Arabs to flee their homes amid death threats.
A Kurdish man, who came back to Kirkuk three months ago after 15 years of living in poverty in a town near the Iranian border, says he has no sympathy for the Arabs, many of whom are now homeless and are also living in makeshift camps across the center of the country.
Haider Mohammed Amin says he does not care. He says he lost everything because of Saddam.
Mr. Amin says there are no Kurds who do not want their property back. He says many Kurdish people like him have no houses to return to because Saddam destroyed them, but the land still belongs to the Kurds.
While much of the migration to Kirkuk is being driven by the returnees themselves, some Kurdish families say privately that they are being told to return by Kurdish political leaders, who have made no secret of their desire to reassume Kurdish influence in and around the city.
The leaders, who believe Kirkuk should become the capital of a federal Kurdish state, have moved aggressively in recent months to expand the Kurdish presence here. The city's police force is now majority Kurd and many local government buildings fly Kurdish flags, not Iraqi.
The situation has deeply alarmed Turkmen leaders in Kirkuk, who say the Kurds are trying to dominate a city they say was founded by their Turkish ancestors centuries ago. Recent assassinations of several senior members of both Kurdish and Turkmen political parties have raised fears that the struggle for control of Kirkuk could destabilize the region.
And Kirkuk is not the only place in Iraq where civil unrest is brewing.
Further south, in Baghdad, a Shi'ite Muslim woman and her family tell VOA of being forced to leave their home in the town of Yusufiya after receiving several death threats from Sunni Muslim extremists.
Wijdan Abdurahman said that she and her husband had lived peacefully for 12 years among her mostly Sunni Muslim neighbors in Yusufiya. Then, one day in December, her family and other Shi'ite families began receiving warnings taped to the doors of their homes. "If you do not move out of the neighborhood, we will cut your throats," the notes said.
Ms. Abdurahman and her family moved out in March. But she says 17 Shi'ites in Yusufiya were subsequently murdered for not obeying the order.
"We lost everything," she cries, pointing to a small, cramped bedroom in Baghdad where seven members of her family now live.
It is not known how many other Shi'ite families in Iraq are in similar situations and if Sunni Muslim families are also being threatened or killed by Shi'ites.
Shi'ite Muslims make up more than half of Iraq's 26 million people, but they suffered brutally under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath Party. After U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam, long-held rivalry between the two groups began intensifying as coalition officials moved to achieve a more equitable political balance among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.
Iraqi political analyst Nabil Mohammed Salim says it is clear that the new interim government will have to work hard to formulate a constitution that can hold the country together in the coming months and years.
"We need to learn a lot of things about civil society," he said. "We think that the American people and the British people can give us their experience in these fields, but not as an occupation power, but as friends. If you can do this, it's going to be good. If not, I think the war is going to continue."
In a move to defuse tension in Kirkuk, the outgoing top American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced Tuesday the formation of the Kirkuk Foundation, a special $100 million fund to create special projects to unite the community.
Speaking in Kirkuk during a farewell tour of Iraq, Mr. Bremer acknowledged that the city had difficult issues to resolve, but predicted it would succeed in becoming a model of ethnic diversity and peace.
Few people in Kirkuk say they can predict when that might happen.