KIRKUK Rahman Aziz, 37, laughs out loud with his friend Rahman as they sit together across from the old citadel in this northern Iraqi city. The city needs their laughter.
Rahman is a Kurd, and his friend, Sa’ad, 34, a Turkomen. "We have been good friends for years," said Rahman, who now owns a small shop in the city. "We don’t think our friendship can ever be destroyed by politics."
But it is under threat. Kirkuk is being claimed by Kurds. But it has a large population of Arabs who were settled there in the days of Saddam Hussein. It also has a large Turkomen population Iraqis of Turkish descent.
Kirkuk Kurds faced severe persecution under Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s troops forced Rahman’s family to evacuate their home in the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood Imam Qasim in Kirkuk ten years ago. They were allowed to take only a handful of their possessions with them.
A few days after they left, their house was bulldozed. The family moved to Sulaimaniya, 120km east of Kirkuk.
In the course of its 35-year rule in Iraq, the Ba’ath government expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkomens from Kirkuk under its "Arabisation" policy. Thousands of Arab families from the southern and central Arab regions were encouraged to move to Kirkuk to strengthen government grip on the region’s oilfields.
Now many Kurdish refugees have started returning to Kirkuk in hope of resuming a better life.
"We all need to make a fresh start here," Rahman said. But conflict must be avoided, he said. "If we don’t want to fight each other, nobody can force us to."
Despite such sentiments, the situation does not look promising. A relatively safe city for months after the end of the war in May 2003, Kirkuk is now witnessing an increasing wave of killings.
Kirkuk officials blame most of the violence on al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, but officials are not clear whether those behind the violence have sectarian motives.
The mounting violence is doing its damage by way of straining relations between different communities. The intricate social structure of Kirkuk comprising Kurds, Arabs (both Shia and Sunni), Turkomens and also Christians has led some diplomatic and media circles to speculate that this city could be one of the starting points of a civil war.
Most people in Kirkuk do not seem to believe that will happen. Many say that talk of civil war is led by people who have a stake in making that war happen.
"If a civil war was to happen, it would have happened in the immediate chaotic aftermath of the fall of Saddam’s regime," Jawad al-Janabi, Arab member of Kirkuk’s provincial council told IPS. "I think the common historical backgrounds and social ties among the various nationalities of Kirkuk will prevent such a war."
Kurdish officials in Kirkuk say there is no ethnic clash in Kirkuk. "It is for three years some people say Kirkuk is a time bomb," said Hasib Rojbayani, a Kurdish member of Kirkuk’s provincial council. "But such claims are far from the reality of Kirkuk. The situation here is under control."
Amid rising speculation about a civil war in Kirkuk, most people dream simply of better living conditions. "We just need some peaceful air to breathe, and to forget the unhappy past," said a Christian resident.
Iraq’s new constitution has set up a three-step roadmap to normalize the situation of Kirkuk. Article 140 in that document allows Kurdish and Turkomen refugees to return to the city, and calls for Arabs who were brought by Saddam’s regime to Kirkuk to be compensated to leave the city.
A population census would be the second step, to be followed by a provincial referendum by the end of 2007 on whether Kirkuk will remain a separate federal region or be incorporated into Kurdistan region.