STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, as American troops leave Iraq, the one place in the country that is considered more likely to erupt into violence, at least in the short-term, is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The city is a complicated ethnic mix of Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen, among others, and it's on the borderline. Because there's the economist Kurdish region to the north, and in the Arab-dominated central government lands controlled out of Baghdad, and there's a question of who really who controls that city.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Kirkuk and sent this report.

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KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So we're standing on a highway right across from one of the main gates to what used to be - up to a few weeks ago - an American military base. It was actually one of the few military bases to remain inside an Iraqi city. Because this city, Kirkuk, is a difficult place. It's a place where there's a lot of ethnic tensions, and the Americans were thought to be mediators of some sort.

That relationship was tested last month when the U.S. was preparing to leave the base. As with hundreds of other American bases that have closed here in Iraq in recent weeks, the U.S. signed the Kirkuk base over to the Iraqi military. But when the predominately Arab army prepared to enter the base, the predominantly Kurdish police force blocked the entrance.

Kurdish journalist Kavez Mela Pervez disguised himself in a police uniform and snuck into the base that day. He says the six-hour standoff, at one point, got so heated that both sides drew their guns.

KAVEZ MELA PERVEZ: (Through Translator) At that moment, I felt that that was the end. And that was not only me who felt this way, actually many of those who around me felt this way, too.

MCEVERS: The problem, Pervez says, is that before the Americans came, the base was used by Saddam Hussein's army to expel, attack, and kill Kurds. Most Kurds believe the base should be a civilian airport, as it was before Saddam.

The standoff is an illustration of the larger problem in Kirkuk. Kurds want to regain control of a city they say was once theirs. Arabs don't want to let go of a city that they settled in at the encouragement of Saddam. Turkmen, Christians, and other ethnic groups are caught somewhere in the middle.

In a market in the center of Kirkuk, most people are afraid to talk about the departure of the Americans, and who could help the Kurds and Arabs resolve their differences now that U.S. troops are leaving. One young Arab, named Mustafa, says his family was offered about $17,000 as part of a government program to move Arabs out of Kirkuk. But that wasn't enough.

MUSTAFA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We've lived here all our lives, Mustafa says. Even if the Kurds come and try to kick us out, we will not leave.

Just outside Kirkuk, though, it's no longer an option for Arabs to stay in a valley neatly divided into plots of grain.

ABDUL ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Kurdish farmer Abdul Abdullah says Kurds are moving into this fertile land for good, whether it's legal or not.

American officials here in Iraq insist that just because U.S. troops are leaving, it doesn't mean American diplomats can't still serve as mediators between Arabs and Kurds. After all, it was diplomats who intervened to ease the standoff at the U.S. base last month.

But Hassan Turan, a Turkman who heads the Kirkuk provincial council, says American diplomats will be perceived differently, now that guns no longer back up their words.

HASSAN TURAN: They have many people from the state department. But their power, in my opinion, will be less without the military.

MCEVERS: Toran was part of a group of Kirkuki leaders who'd agreed to meet outside of Kirkuk, in an effort to bring leaders from different ethnic groups together. The conference was organized by a German foundation. The hope was that it's not just the Americans who can act as mediators.

Joost Hiltermann moderated the event. He's a longtime Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. He says the only way to resolve the larger question of what will happen with Kirkuk, the so-called status question, is if local politicians can sit down and figure out how to get along.

JOOST HILTERMANN: Status has been an issue between the political parties at the national level. And it shouldn't be. It should be very much in the hands of the people of Kirkuk itself. But the Kirkukis never had that kind of voice, they were divided. They took no decisions of their own, it was one against the other. This is changing. And I think that is really critically important for the future of Kirkuk.

MCEVERS: Locally, leaders from all the different ethnic groups are beginning to make decisions like how to provide electricity despite national shortages. At the national level, though, Hiltemann says the question of status will remain unanswered for some time. And the fear, he says, is that the next time the guns are drawn, there will be nobody to prevent what comes next.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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