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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Violence is at a five-year low in Iraq, but the political battles are as bad as ever. And nowhere is that more evident than in Kirkuk. Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen all claim that oil-rich city in northern Iraq is their own.

And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, people there fear that their city could be headed towards sectarian war.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: At a popular restaurant in central Kirkuk, the lunch crowd is as diverse as this historic city. Diners here speak a variety of languages and dialects, sometimes at the same table - like Kurdish.

Unidentified Man #1: (Kurdish spoken)

NELSON: …and Arabic…

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

NELSON: …and Turkmen.

Unidentified Man #3: (Turkic spoken)

NELSON: The atmosphere is relaxed. But patrons quickly grow tense when a visitor asks them what they think about the growing political battle over what should happen with their city.

Unidentified Woman: (Kurdish spoken)

NELSON: Most, like this Kurdish woman, don't want to talk about it. One diner who agreed to talk is Mohammad Ali Papa. He heads a group promoting ethnic cooperation in Kirkuk.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ALI PAPA (Resident, Kirkuk): We are confirming on one thing: that Kirkuk is for all the Kirkukis, for all the ethnicities. They should manage Kirkuk together equally, no one could be marginalized.

NELSON: That's never been the case in Kirkuk's troubled history, especially since vast oil reserves were discovered here 80 years ago. There have been repeated efforts to displace various ethnicities from Kirkuk.

During Saddam Hussein's rule, tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmen were expelled from the city and replaced by Arabs from other places in Iraq.

Today, it is the Kurds who wield the main power here, and they've been accused of displacing Turkmen and Arabs. Now, the city's minority Arab and Turkmen leaders say they no longer trust that their Kurdish counterparts will share power with them.

Mr. MOHAMMED KHALIL AL-JABOURI (Member, Kirkuk Provincial Council): (Kurdish spoken)

NELSON: Mohammed Khalil al-Jabouri is a Sunni Arab member of Kirkuk's provincial council. He says his Kurdish colleagues in late July called a special session of the council in which they voted to ask the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan to annex Kirkuk.

Kurdish backers of the proposal said they had no choice because Iraq's parliament isn't clearing the way for provincial elections to be held in Kirkuk or anywhere else. They want Kirkuk residents to decide in a referendum once and for all what should happen to their city: whether it should continue to be linked to the central government in Baghdad, whether it should join Kurdistan to the north, or whether it should be given a special status.

Instead, lawmakers have sought to postpone the elections in Kirkuk while allowing the votes elsewhere in the country.

One bill passed by secret ballot last month that would have delayed elections here and weakened Kurdish control over the city was quickly vetoed by Iraq's Kurdish president, supported by the country's Shiite vice president.

Rizgar Ali Hamajan, the Kurdish chair of Kirkuk's provincial council, claims the problem is that Iraq's central government does not want to part with Kirkuk and its oil, which it would have to do given the widely expected outcome of the referendum. Not just because this city of 1.3 million people is majority Kurdish, he says, but because many residents prefer more distance from Baghdad.

Mr. RIZGAR ALI HAMAJAN (Chairman, Kirkuk Provincial Council): (Speaking in foreign language)

NELSON: Hamajan accuses lawmakers of playing an unconstitutional and dangerous game — one that could unravel the fragile security here and across Iraq. He says he's willing to wait until lawmakers return from their recess next month. But he adds if parliament, at that point, still refuses to clear the way for a referendum, his bloc will take matters into their own hands.

In Baghdad, many politicians bristle at such threats, like Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the second-largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament.

Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ (Head, Iraqi Front for National Dialogue): We want Kirkuk to be an Iraqi city, not a Kurdish city or an Arabic city or a Turkmen city.

NELSON: Mutlaq concedes the Kurds can force the issue now, but he warns it'll only be temporary, that eventually, the Iraqi army will be strong enough to take Kirkuk back by force from the Kurds.

Mr. AL-MUTLAQ: Now, Iraq is weak. They can do whatever they want to do, but they cannot keep it.

NELSON: Already, the political tension has spilled onto Kirkuk's streets. Last month, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 people at a Kurdish rally protesting against the parliament's actions. Scores of Kurds then tried storming a nearby Turkmen political office. They broke windows and set cars ablaze, drawing gunfire from Turkmen security guards. One person was killed. The office is still closed, with only burned-out cars, broken furniture and glass left behind.

Jamal Shan, who heads the Iraqi National Turkmen Party, says he worries such sectarian attacks will spread. He says Turkmen are thinking about forming their own militia to protect their interests.

Mr. JAMAL SHAN (Turkic spoken): (Through translator) If that's not acceptable, then the central government should send its forces to Kirkuk to protect us. Or the Kurds should increase the number of Turkmen serving in Kirkuk's security forces. Or someone should bring in international troops because we no longer trust the Kurds or the Americans who back them.

NELSON: That sort of talk worries Kirkuk residents. Whether Kurds, Turkmen or Arabs, residents interviewed for this story say they don't want to end up living in a segregated city carved up by concrete barriers, like Baghdad. Kirkuk residents say they thrive on living and working side by side, like here at an outdoor market called The Republic.

Ali Razhoughi Razi, a Kurd, counts a stack of Iraqi money he's earned from selling Chinese-made plugs and power strips here. He says he believes it is Iraq's politicians — not the residents of Kirkuk — who are stoking the ethnic tensions here.

Mr. ALI RAZHOUGHI RAZI (Resident, Kirkuk): (Through translator) I mean, Turkmen buy from me, Kurds buy from me, Christians — everybody buys from me. I've never seen anyone — an Arab or a Turkmen — say, no, you are a Kurd, I will not buy from you. So that means we are living together as brothers.

Kirkuk Governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa Fatah, who is also Kurdish, shares that view.

Governor ABDUL RAHMAN MUSTAFA FATAH (Kirkuk): (Kurdish spoken)

NELSON: He says there have been plenty of attempts over the past five years to stir up trouble among the locals, but he believes the interethnic bonds are too strong here to be broken for long.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kirkuk.

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