The road from Erbil to Kirkuk does not show much evidence of recent conflict. But just north of the city is a huge boiling mass of black smoke. The oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey has been attacked once again. The fire could be taken as reflective of the conflict in Kirkuk among the Kurds, Iraqi Turkmen, and Arabs.

The question of who should control the city is answered quite differently depending on who is asked. The Kurds are adamant that Kirkuk is the heart of the region they call Kurdistan. The Kirkuk chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Bagat Turka, insists that the region and city of Kirkuk are an inseparable part of Kurdistan and Kurds are there to stay. He says "We gave our blood and gained our freedom and we came back to Kirkuk. And now, we don't leave."

Opposing the Kurdish view are the Iraqi Turkmen, who say their people from the days of the Ottoman Empire have been the majority in the Kirkuk region and are entitled to control it. Iraqi Turkmen Front representative Asif Sertturkmen asserts his people's claim to the city. "Each city in Iraq," he says "has its own identity. Kirkuk has a Turkmen identity, and it shouldn't be changed."

While some Arabs have always been in Kirkuk, many more were transplanted there from the south during Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program, displacing others who were driven away from the region. When the Iraqi leader was toppled in April of last year, Kurds came back to Kirkuk in large numbers to reclaim homes and property. But, the Arabs occupying those properties have largely refused to leave. The interim Iraqi government has set up a Property and Claims Commission to review property disputes, but resolution has been slow.

Some Arabs, including Karim al-Moussaoui of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi'a political party, are calling for calm and reconciliation. He says "I am asking our brothers the Kurds and Turkmen to work together with the government to settle this crisis."

Since the end of the Iraq war, Kirkuk has been the scene of sporadic violence. Several car bombings last month killed dozens of people. There have been murders of officials and those connected to them. Kurdish refugee camps have been hit by gunfire and bombings. With each incident, the factions are usually quick to blame the other groups for the violence. Mohammed Swani, a journalist for a Kurdish newspaper in Kirkuk, is among those making such accusations. He asserted "The Turkmen and the Arabs, they think the Kurdish are a big enemy to them. They make plans to take out the Kurdish from Kirkuk."

Because Kirkuk is so contested, the Transitional Administrative Law governing Iraq until a new constitution can be written has placed the city under special administration. The "TAL" also specifies that a fair and transparent census, the first in decades, must be conducted before territorial disputes can be permanently resolved. The Kurds and Turkmen each insist that this census will prove their claim to Kirkuk. People from both of those groups have asserted that such a census will make it clear that the Arabs who came during Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program have no claim to Kirkuk, and should leave.

Perhaps mindful of the difficult situation his people are in, Arab spokesman Karim al-Moussaoui says a peaceful resolution of Kirkuk's problems would set a positive tone for national reconcilliation. "Unifying Iraq is starting from Kirkuk." He adds "If we have success in Kirkuk, I believe we can have success in all of Iraq and we make a new country."

But his hope isn't shared by Iraqi Turkmen representative Asif Sertturkmen, who makes a dark prediction with serious national implications. "A civil war," he says "is about to erupt in Kirkuk. And, when a civil war erupts in Kirkuk it means the whole region is going to have unrest. Kirkuk now is a very sensitive issue and a very sensitive city."

Adding to the contentions surrounding Kirkuk are issues of political control. The Kurds have recently held demonstrations in the northern Iraqi cities of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaimaniyah. The protestors demand a referendum on whether the Kirkuk should be under the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Turkmen say they will never allow Kirkuk to officially become part of Kurdistan, and Arabs have said that only the central government in Baghdad should have control of the region.

To many observers the future of the entire country may well depend on all sides in Kirkuk giving enough ground to each other's concerns to ensure a semblance of peace. The danger, they say, is that the situation may explode before that common ground is found.