KIRKUK, Iraq -- This ethnically mixed city sitting atop vast oil resources has become dangerously polarized, with Kurds and Arabs vying to dominate it in the new Iraq. Talk of ethnic brotherhood has ended, replaced by heated, exclusionist rhetoric and violence. Gunfire by Kurds killed at least two demonstrators at a New Year's Eve march by Arabs and Turkmens -- Kirkuk's third major ethnic group -- against a measure of autonomy for Kurds. Within a week, unknown gunmen killed three Kurds.
Over at the Turkmen Culture Center and Billiards Hall in a Turkmen part of town, young men complained that Kurdish teachers had supplanted Arabs and Turkmens and were scheduling exams so that the students could not participate in political demonstrations. The students said they felt intimidated.
"We are getting afraid to speak out," said Anes Sabah Mohammed, a student at Kirkuk Technical Academy, a mixed vocational school. On Jan. 8, someone detonated a bomb in front of the school. It shattered windows but injured no one. "Anyone could have put it there," he said. "Everyone could be a target of someone in Kirkuk."
The overthrow of former president Saddam Hussein, rather than ushering in an era of reconciliation, appears to have released long-repressed ethnic rivalries and aspirations here. As the June 30 deadline approaches for the US-led occupation authorities to hand over power to an Iraqi government, all sides are jockeying for position.
Kirkuk has emerged as a key arena. It is a city of impossible math. Kurds say they make up 40 percent of the population. Arabs say Arabs make up half; and Turkmens, Iraq's third-largest ethnic group, also say they are half of Kirkuk's population.
"Kirkuk is a flash point," said Ghazi Yahya Auglu, an official of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, one of the political parties in Kirkuk.
Kurdish political parties and their militias want to expel 270,000 Iraqi Arabs from Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk, under a plan to annex the region to a future autonomous zone. Kurds argue that they are merely redressing an injustice perpetrated by various Iraqi governments that expelled Kurds northward and took their lands. Hussein accelerated the program and brought in Arab settlers to replace the Kurds.
The Kurds say that without ironclad pledges of expanded autonomy and an explicit commitment to reverse population engineering, they will not go along with US plans to hand over power in Iraq to a central government in Baghdad.
The threat represents a major turnaround for the Kurds. During the war, they were the staunchest allies of the United States in Iraq.
Religious leaders of Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslim population reject expanded autonomy for the Kurds. Sunni Muslim leaders also reject the Kurds' notion of a federal state, as do northern Iraq's Turkmens, an ethnic group with deep roots here, who say they fear becoming second-class citizens.
All players regard Kirkuk, with a population of about 800,000, as the grand prize. It is an ancient city that grew in national importance with the discovery of oil in the 1920s. The wells begin at the city's western edge, where flames from burned-off natural gas light up the night sky. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens live in both segregated communities and mixed ones, but with the expulsion of Iraqi forces last spring, Kurdish refugees from the north began to flood into the city, establishing a police force and dominating the US-appointed city council.
"Of course, this is a sensitive situation. Kurds were thrown out and want to come back, so naturally there is a period of uncertainty," said Jalal Jawhar, an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "But people must accept that there was an injustice. The ones who really fight it are backers of the old regime."
The PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party rule a zone in far northern Iraq that was independent of the central government for 12 years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Jawhar's office was damaged by a car bomb in November and by mortar fire this month.
Jawhar makes no apologies for the call to expel Arab settlers. He expressed dismay that Arabs were coming to live in Kirkuk in unknown numbers. "I have heard that Arabs are coming or will come," he said, listing a half-dozen city districts where Arabs have settled.
"We are against the presence of everybody brought in by Saddam Hussein. We want them to leave. We want it in a legal way, but they must leave."
International organizations should compensate the Arabs and take them back to their areas of origin, he added.