KIRKUK, Iraq - Graffiti inside this city's ancient hilltop citadel quickly spells out the tension between Kirkuk's three main ethnic groups -- Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.
On one wall, an eagle descends on a two-headed serpent meant to symbolize enemies of the Kurdish nation. Next to it, the word "Arab" is erased and replaced with an etched "Kurdish" in a slogan that once read: "Kirkuk is an Arab city." Another slogan reads: "Kirkuk is Turkmen."
Kirkuk has been the object of a bitter struggle over the past five years among Iraq's competing ethnic and sectarian groups. And now Arab, Kurd, and Turkmen factions seem to be digging in, anticipating that tensions may erupt in an area that is the center of northern Iraq's oil industry ahead of a promised referendum on the fate of Kirkuk Province, officially still called Tamim, its previous Baath Party-era name.
Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution was supposed to resolve the issue by the end of 2007 but the deadline for a vote has been extended to the end of June in the hopes that the United Nations may be able to broker a solution by then.
But with or without a referendum, Kurds maintain that almost the entirety of Kirkuk Province, of which the city of Kirkuk is the capital, is a natural part of their semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Arabs and Turkmen, on the other hand, say Article 140 is now "null and void" and that other solutions must be devised.
In general, Turkmen support a semi-independent Kirkuk Province while Arabs back the idea of the central government remaining in control.
Meanwhile, the United States is exerting a mix of coercion and incentives to prevent the feuding parties from battling each other over the issue.
But already local security officials say a simmering conflict is under way with no day going by without a tit-for-tat kidnapping or assassination involving a member of the city's three competing population groups. Turkmen and Arab leaders say hundreds of their own have been jailed inside Kurdistan.
"We kidnap terrorists, it's the only way to protect Kurdistan," says Muhammad Ihsan, minister of extraregional affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Mr. Ihsan also says that his government has proof that Turkey, which is adamant that the Kurds not be allowed to annex Kirkuk into the KRG, has members of its military intelligence inside Kirkuk at the offices of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), the Turkmen political coalition. "This is aggression and interference," he says.
On a recent crisp morning, Ali Hashem, an ITF strongman, was huddled with some of his colleagues at a diner in downtown Kirkuk.
Over a traditional northern Iraq breakfast of crushed yellow lentil soup and hot bread, they spoke about what they characterized as aggression and pressure by the two main ruling Kurdish parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- regarding the question of Kirkuk.
"In order to defend ourselves, we might be compelled to bear arms one day," says Mr. Hashem, who is a member of the ITF's executive committee and the party boss in neighboring Salaheddin Province. "Kurds have gone too far; they have taken their full rights and now they want to infringe upon the rights of others."
The talk in Kirkuk is that Hashem is leading a drive to stockpile weapons ahead of any potential armed confrontation with the Kurds. He does not preclude the possibility but says his party is still banking on efforts to draft more Turkmen into local police and Iraqi Army forces, which he says are disproportionately dominated by Kurds.
The ITF, which is a coalition of six parties, receives significant support from Turkey and is even considered by many to be a Turkish proxy party. It's the most militant of the Turkmen parties and has turned the issue of Kirkuk and what it views as the city's Turkmen identity into a rallying cry.
Turkmen in Iraq, a distinct ethnic group, are estimated to number anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million. They, along with Kurds, suffered from Saddam Hussein's policy of demographic and geographic engineering that accompanied his Arabization policy of northern Iraq.
Turkmen and Arabs now accuse the Kurds of "Kurdifying" Kirkuk and not waiting for the city's fate to be decided through a vote. Many accuse them of having brought back to Kirkuk more than half a million Kurdish inhabitants since the fall of Mr. Hussein's regime in 2003 and thuggishly seizing control and power here.
The head of Kirkuk's provincial council, Rizgar Ali, a Kurd, says only 240,000 people, including non-Kurds, have returned since 2003. He says that hundreds of Kurdish villages in the province remain destroyed and abandoned.
But in Kirkuk it's hard not to notice the overwhelming Kurdish influence. Entire districts are now thoroughly Kurdish. Neighborhood and street names and billboards glorifying Kurdish peshmerga fighters attest to a new assertiveness. The Kurdish-led coalition dominates the local council with 26 seats, followed by the Turkmen with nine, and Arabs with six. The Turkmen have been boycotting the council's meetings since November 2006.
In a recent interview in the Kurdish capital of Arbil, the KRG's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani cupped his hands to describe how Kurdish forces have Kirkuk surrounded. "If we want to change things by force, we can do it like that," he says, snapping his fingers.
"But we do not see a solution being imposed by force Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ we want a consensus solution accepted by all sides," says Mr. Barzani.
He says his government is under pressure from its own public over the Kirkuk question and that it is trying to juggle that with its commitments to the political process in Iraq.
But Ihsan, who is Kurdistan's chief representative in the national committee that's supposed to resolve the Kirkuk question, says there is a limit to the KRG's patience and that a forceful annexation may be an option.
"What do you think, we are going to wait to make Iraq stronger and come back Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ even now they are not implementing the Constitution," says the minister. "We are giving a chance until the end of 2008, but no more."
The ITF says it's ready for this eventuality. "We will be able to resist long enough until an outside power intervenes," says Jala Neftachy, a Turkmen provincial council member. She was among a delegation that met with top Turkish officials earlier this year and received assurances that they would stop any forced Kurdish annexation.
"The Turkish government have confirmed this to us; they will not be bystanders, they will interfere by force," adds Ms. Neftachy.
The last contingent of British soldiers based in the center of this southern city will leave by Friday, says a senior Iraqi security official, adding that a deal has been struck with leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to ensure their safe departure.
As they pull back to a base outside Basra, the British will leave a vital provincial capital in the throes of a turf battle between Shiite factions - one that Mr. Sadr's militia appears to be winning.
"By the end of August, there will be no presence for British forces at the palace or at the joint coordination center. Both will be in the hands of the Iraqi government," says the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter. "I think it's best if they leave, because they did nothing to stop the militias, which were formed in the womb of their occupation." A spokesman for the British military in Basra confirmed that a small force left the Provincial Joint Coordination Center (PJCC), site of a British-Iraqi security task force, Saturday. He declined comment on the timing of the pullout of 500 soldiers from a compound of four Saddam Hussein-era palaces that are located on the strategic Shatt al-Arab River. The buildings have been occupied by coalition troops since the start of the war in 2003.
Ahead of the pullout, an agreement between British and Iraqi authorities resulted in the transfer of more than two dozen Mahdi Army prisoners from British to Iraqi custody, according to the security official. They were then released by an Iraqi court in an attempt to pacify the militias during the highly symbolic handover of the palaces to Iraqis, he said. The British did not comment on any arrangements.
The departing force will join 5,000 soldiers at the Shaibah air base, about 10 miles southwest of the city, also home to the US and British consulates. Unlike their US counterparts elsewhere in Iraq, British forces have been gradually trimming their presence in the south since May 2003, when they numbered 18,000.
The Iraqi official says the palaces will be handed over to an Iraqi force dispatched from Baghdad and will not be given to the controversial provincial authority, which is embroiled in a power struggle between rival Shiite political parties. This 3,000-strong Iraqi force will consist of two Army battalions and elements from the Ministry of Interior's commando unit.
The Mahdi Army, which according to one estimate, numbers about 17,000 in Basra and is divided into about 40 sariyas (company-size military unit), is the strongest among its rivals in the militia-infiltrated police force and it has influence over vital sectors such as health, education, power distribution, and ports.
Although Basra, an economically important port city in a province with some of the largest oil deposits in the world, is considerably calmer and less violent than Baghdad, it faces a low-intensity, yet vicious, battle between the Mahdi Army and its many competitors that has spread fear and apprehension among many of the city's estimated 1.8 million residents.
One local official says about 5,000 assassinations have occurred inside the city in the past two years.
It was at a Friday night meeting when two Mahdi Army commanders and a lawyer tied to Sadr came to an Iraqi government official's home to ask about one of their senior leaders. They wanted to know if Sajad was among 26 detainees released by British forces. Their cases were recently transferred to the Iraqi judicial system. Half had already been freed because the court deemed the evidence submitted by the British side insufficient to prosecute them. The rest have been released on bail, according to the lawyer, Yahya al-Taie.
One commander, who asked not to be named, carefully looked over a list of detainees until he found Sajad's name. He commands fighters in the city's Garmat Ali section. His arrest last year was hailed as a coup by British forces during their offensive against militias in the city as part of Operation Sinbad that lasted from September 2006 to March 2007.Now, as the British prepare for departure, Sajad was freed.
"The arrests did not stop the rockets, nor did the rockets defeat the British," said the security source. "We needed to find an alternative solution that would calm things down a bit."
The palaces that the British will vacate have been the target of constant rocket and mortar attacks, which have declined over the past 10 days.
The British military in Basra denied interview requests. In an e-mail, spokesman Maj. Mike Shearer did not comment on whether the military was aware of, or involved in, a prisoner release in exchange for a suspension of attacks. He said that British forces have held more than 2,250 Iraqi suspects since Jan. 1, 2004, including the 26 transferred to the Iraqi court system. They have released all but 80 prisoners.
The Iraqi official said releasing Mahdi Army fighters - combined with the absence of an excuse for militias to launch attacks on the palace - would give Lt. Gen. Mohan Hafidh, head of the Basra Operations Center appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, enough breathing room to stabilize the province.
But the PJCC left by the British Saturday was the scene of a four-hour looting spree Sunday, according to security officials.
"We will lessen the attacks against them [the British] and we will stop altogether if they release all our prisoners," said one of the Mahdi Army leaders at the Friday meeting. A colleague, who appeared more senior, disagreed: "The resistance will continue until the last soldier leaves Basra."
Indeed, overall attacks against British forces have increased despite the gradual decline in troop numbers. This year, 41 soldiers have died, compared with 29 in all of 2006.
Although members of the Mahdi Army pledge allegiance to Sadr, many operate according to conflicting agendas and some are linked to Iran, according to security officials. Last week, efforts by police chief Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf to hem in the notoriously corrupt and militia-controlled intelligence and criminal investigation units of the police force were met with protests and threats. There have already been two attempts on his life since Mr. Maliki appointed him three months ago.
A candidate for the same post at the time said the Mahdi Army is the most formidable force in the province. He said that he was visited by five militia leaders who told him: "We will support you but people should know you are with us."
On the streets, there is a sense of jubilation and victory over British forces. In central Arousa Square, a street was renamed after the "martyr Jaafar Muhammad," killed in clashes with the British. "He's one of my guys. One of the valiant heroes of the Imam Mahdi Army," says a bearded company commander who gave his name as Uncle Abed. "God has blessed us with victory over the occupation."