Fears of New Fighting as Tensions Mount Over Kirkuk

Tensions over the oil-rich Province of Kirkuk are mounting and rival factions are reportedly preparing themselves for a long and protracted armed conflict.

But the battle over Kirkuk, once ignited, will be almost impossible to extinguish.

Such a conflict would involve all the country's disparate factions and ethnic groups, particularly the Kurds who, since the U.S. invasion of 2003, have enjoyed relative quiet.

Arabs of central and southern Iraq have been fighting each other through locally raised militias and the clash of loyalties among the fledgling Iraqi troops as well as U.S. invasion troops.

With the American invasion, Arab Shiites and Sunnis resorted to guns to solve their differences. In the ensuing infighting, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are believed to have been killed or injured.

As the Arabs were fighting each other, the Kurds tried to rearm their military wing, the Peshmerga, or local militias.

The Kurds have access to 17 percent of all foreign cash Iraq gets from its oil exports which amounts to billions of dollars every year. Their militiamen, numbering 180,000, are paid by the central government.

Analysts say the Kurds have used a substantial portion of their share of the oil money to arm their militias.

But their opponents, mainly Sunni Arabs, are not defenseless.

Thanks to U.S. occupation troops, Sunni tribes in central Iraq are now heavily armed, as Washington has been using them as proxies to fight al-Qaeda.

But Arab Shiites cannot stay idle if hostilities break out. Most of Iraqi Turkmen who oppose Kurdish control of Kirkuk are Shiites and so are many Arab tribes in the province.

Signs of infighting are in the air, with Arab tribal chieftains threatening to resort to arms in order not to let the Kurds control the oil-rich province.

Similar threats have come from Kurdish Peshmerga and political leaders. Kurdish militias are conspicuously deployed in Kirkuk, the provincial center, while Kurdish leaders object to the deployment of Iraqi troops in the city.

The U.S. has raised a fully equipped army of Sunni tribesmen, the militia known locally as Majalis al-Sahwa or Awakening Councils.

The leaders of these councils have warned of grave consequences if they moved ahead with their annexation plans.

Sheikh Hussein al-Jibouri, a high-ranking Sunni tribal chieftain whose tribesmen the U.S. arms and finances, said Arabs will not stand by if the Kurds officially add the oil-rich territory to their autonomous region.

"The Arabs' patience is wearing thin. If they (the Arabs) are forced for a confrontation they know how to do it … We are prepared and have the means and the capabilities," Jibouri warned.

Another senior Sunni Arab tribal leader issued a similar warning.

Ali al-Sulaiman, a leader of the powerful Awakening Council of the once restive Province of Anbar, advised the Kurds not to ever think that they can have their sway over Kirkuk.

He said any Kurdish attempt to annex Kirkuk would lead to 'catastrophic consequences."

But the Kurds have said they will settle for no less than "full annexation" and for them Kirkuk is the 'Jerusalem" that cannot be compromised.

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