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Kirkuk Caught In Struggle

The city of Kirkuk is the center of Iraq's northern oil fields and, because of that, factions are vying for control of it. The struggle could turn violent before a political solution is reached.

There is a traffic circle in Kirkuk that features a sculpture with three huge swords encircling an oil well. The sculpture, ironically, serves as a symbol of Kirkuk's economic importance to Iraq and how the three factions in the city - - Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs - - may come to blows over who will control it.

By many estimates, Kirkuk may sit atop as much as 10 billion barrels of oil. That wealth makes Kirkuk a prize worth fighting for, even though the new Iraqi constitution says the central government in Baghdad controls the oil. Some observers warn that an outbreak of widespread factional violence in Kirkuk could ignite a national civil war.

An Oil-Rich Powderkeg

Joost Hiltermann, with the non-governmental International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan, says the city is a potential powderkeg. "There have long been political tensions in Kirkuk, with upticks in violence. The situation is very tense. And everybody is waiting, really, for the next step in the political process which may determine the status of Kirkuk, which is really at the heart of the whole issue," says Hiltermann.

The Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent of Iraq's population but are a majority in much of the north, claim Kirkuk as theirs and want it governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government that already administers three other northern provinces.

Turkish Support for Turkmen

On the other side are the Arabs, whose numbers swelled considerably during Saddam Hussein's rule but have shrunk since the end of the Iraq War. There are also Turkmen, who say Kirkuk is theirs by ancestry.

Jeffrey White, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Turkmen have cross-border support that could be a key factor in the struggle for Kirkuk."They [i.e., Turkmen] are a historic people of the area and they're watching themselves being marginalized. The Turks express interest and concern and support for the Turkmen population, and that's an important card for them [i.e., the Turkmen] to be able to play. The Kurds are always looking over their shoulders to see how the Turkish government is going to react to whatever they do," says White.

Nora Bensahel, an analyst with the RAND Corporation in Washington, says that despite Ankara's support for the Turkmen, the Kurds see their future and Kirkuk as inseparable. "The oil revenues from Kirkuk are the main source of income in the north. So if Kurdish politicians want to promote an independent Kurdistan or even a region within a unified Iraq, they need some resources of their own. And that's why control over Kirkuk is so important strategically for the Kurdish leaders," says Bensahel.

A Kurdish "Jeruzalem"

But Peter Galbraith at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, who has extensive experience with the Kurdistan Regional Government, disagrees with the contention that the Kurds seek control of Kirkuk solely for economic reasons. "Kirkuk is a hugely important emotional issue for the Kurds. They feel they've historically been the majority [of the population there]. They feel they were unlawfully and unjustly expelled. The [Kurdish] leaders have escalated its importance, referring to it as the 'Jerusalem' of Kurdistan or the 'heart' of Kurdistan," says Galbraith.

In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein sent large numbers of Arabs from other parts of Iraq to Kirkuk to displace the Kurds. After Saddam fell in 2003, Kurds flooded back into the city and the surrounding province, demanding their property back. This has become a major source of friction between Kirkuk's ethnic factions.

While Kurds say they are acting to correct Saddam's actions, Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York says the influx of Kurds is also a political move ahead of a key vote. "There has been a clear effort on the part of the Kurds to rebalance Kirkuk's population in favor of the Kurds in preparation for a referendum that will take place in 2007 over the disposition of the city. It's clear to me that the outcome of that referendum will be in favor of Kirkuk being within the [official] Kurdish area of northern Iraq. And this is something of tremendous concern to the neighbors," says Cook.

One concerned neighbor, Turkey, has called for the referendum to be put before all Iraqis, not just those in Kirkuk. Driving that concern, say many analysts, is the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan that Ankara does not want to see controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In recent months, Ankara has deployed at least 200,000 troops to southeastern Turkey along the Iraq border, ostensibly to pursue the Kurdish P.K.K. terrorist group. But many analysts say the deployment is also meant to remind Iraq's Kurds that Ankara is concerned about their designs on Kirkuk, and their broader efforts to achieve independence.

There is yet another element in the struggle for Kirkuk. Outspoken Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has strongly opposed Kurdish attempts to take control of Kirkuk. Some observers say that if the Kurds succeed in next year's referendum, al-Sadr might respond by pushing for the creation of a semi- autonomous Shi'a Arab-dominated region in southern Iraq. And that, they say, could help move Iraq toward breaking into three independent states, ending more than eight decades as a unified country and strongly impacting the region's geopolitical balance.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.