STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, here's one of those stories we seem to repeat again and again. It's a story from Iraq. And it's about the way the city of Kirkuk is a powder keg. Or maybe we should say an oil barrel.
Now that story is changing because it appears that violence is growing in that oil-rich city. It now appears a long dispute over Kirkuk's status is not likely to be resolved this year, even though an article in the Iraqi Constitution calls for a referendum on its future before 2008.
Iraqi Kurds want Kirkuk to be part of their autonomous region, which many of the city's Turkmen and Arabs oppose.
Here's NPR's Ivan Watson.
IVAN WATSON: In his 20-year career as a fighter in the Kurdish militia, General Sarhat Qadir stormed and captured Kirkuk twice. The first time was in 1991 during a short-lived Kurdish uprising which was crushed after a matter of weeks by Saddam Hussein's forces. The second time was in April of 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq and the Kurds seized Kirkuk, tore down statues of Saddam and danced in the streets waving the flag of Kurdistan.
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WATSON: Today, Qadir is a brigadier general in Kirkuk's police force. He says being a rebel in the mountains was much easier.
Brigadier General SARHAT QADIR (Police Commander, Kirkuk): (Through translator) In the old days, things were better and I liked it more, because at that time our enemy was clear and he was in front of us. But now our enemy, I mean, it's - we don't see it — it's invisible.
WATSON: Portraits of dead policemen decorate the halls of Kirkuk's main police station. In the past two years, General Qadir says insurgents have killed more than 500 Iraqi police and soldiers in and around the city, including his brother and cousin. Qadir himself narrowly survived an assassination attempt after someone slipped poison into his Pepsi.
American forces here face a constant threat from roadside bombs - more than five are discovered around the city on any given day.
Did you ever think you'd see this city go downhill like that?
Sergeant JOHN ZIMMERMAN (U.S. Army): Honestly, no, I never thought that it would happen.
WATSON: U.S. Army Sgt. John Zimmerman volunteered for his second tour of duty in Kirkuk. When he first served here in 2004, he says Kirkuk was safe, compared to places like Baghdad and Fallujah.
Sgt. ZIMMERMAN: Back when I was here the first time, it was a big turnaround in the 13 months we spent here. And, you know, saw a lot of good things happen. Now, it just seems like it's all gone downhill.
WATSON: Kirkuk sits on top of the largest oil fields in northern Iraq. To better control the area, Saddam Hussein deported hundreds of thousands of native Kurds and Turkmen, and replaced them with Arab settlers.
Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution was supposed to undo this ethnic cleansing. It calls for a census and a referendum to determine the future status of the city before December 31st of this year.
The Kurds are confident the vote will lead to Kirkuk's annexation to Iraqi Kurdistan. But many non-Kurdish Iraqi politicians remain firmly opposed.
Mr. SALAH al-MUTLAQ (Parliament Member, Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front): They are wasting their time. They will not get Kirkuk.
WATSON: Salah al-Mutlaq is an Iraqi parliament member from the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front.
Mr. al-MUTLAQ: If Kirkuk will go to Kurdistan, then there's a civil war.
WATSON: But amid the escalating insurgent violence in Kirkuk, there are some non-Kurds here who support joining Kurdistan.
Mr. AYDEN ANSI (Turkmen Salesman): (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: The services and security in Kurdistan are better than in other parts of Iraq, says this Turkmen tire salesman named Ayden Ansi. If we join, he adds, Kirkuk will become safer, too.
But the Kurds appear to have lost this round of the struggle for the city. Both American and the Iraqi officials say it's highly unlikely the referendum will take place this year. There is growing criticism within Kurdistan over the Kurdish leadership's Kirkuk strategy.
Asos Hardi is a Kurdish newspaper writer. He says the Kurds have not done enough to reach out to the Arab and Turkmen communities in Kirkuk.
Mr. ASOS HARDI (Newspaper Writer): More important than winning the article or the referendum is winning their hearts and minds, the thing that never could this leadership has done anything about.
WATSON: Back at the police station, General Qadir lists the names of at least half a dozen insurgent groups his men are fighting in the city.
Gen. QADIR: (Foreign language spoken)
WATSON: But this veteran Kurdish fighter says, more schools and jobs - not bullets - are the key to capturing Kirkuk for the Kurds.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kirkuk.
INSKEEP: Iraqi police say more than 300 citizens have been killed in Kirkuk just this year and you can find details at npr.org.
This is NPR News.
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