Prague, 15 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of people took to the streets of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk last week to celebrate the Iraqi Governing Council's adoption of a Basic Law setting the foundation for the country's future constitution.
The majority of the celebrants in the ethnically diverse city were Kurds. Their emotions were high as they chanted slogans and fired their guns into the air.
"Turkomans look at Kirkuk as their city because the majority [of the people] in Kirkuk are Turkomans."
Representatives of Kirkuk's other ethnic communities also welcomed the new document -- but more cautiously. For them, many unanswered questions remain before a permanent constitution is adopted and a sovereign government elected.
Analysts explain the different reactions this way: while the future of Kirkuk's Turkomans and Arabs remains in doubt, the Kurds saw nearly all their demands included in the Basic Law, and even received safeguards that the gains would not be lost in the permanent constitution.
The Kurds also took an important step toward achieving their long-term goal of controlling Kirkuk and its surroundings.
Daniel Neep is the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London. He notes that the document preserves the de facto autonomy of the Kurdish-controlled regions that has been in place since the 1991 Gulf War. That in itself is reason to celebrate.
"There was a great deal of debate following the collapse of the Saddam [Hussein] regime whether this autonomy would be allowed to continue or whether the Kurds would be forcibly brought back into the mainstream of the Iraqi political system. The [provisional] constitution gives them a lifeline that preserves that autonomy and leaves open the possibility of being expanded even further in the future. The Kurds, of course, are pressing for the maximum amount of autonomy to be devolved to them," Neep said.
Neep says the autonomy issue is highly controversial because it deals with territory and power -- something that is causing unease both locally and internationally.
"The Turks, in particular, are very keen that any developments towards the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq don't spill over the border and revive Kurdish aspirations in the southeast of Turkey. So the Turks are extremely concerned. But also the Arabs as well are concerned that Kurdish autonomy or a Kurdish degree of self-rule will spill over and eventually create a fragmentation of the Republic of Iraq," Neep said.
Analysts say the situation in multiethnic, multireligious Kirkuk is extremely volatile. Depending on the outcome, the resolution of the Kirkuk question could potentially serve as a model for problem-solving throughout sovereign Iraq.
Ultimately, Neep says, the city is important in two key ways -- symbolically and economically.
"Kirkuk is located in the middle of an oil-rich area. And this obviously gives it an important economic price. But also symbolically it is very important -- to the Kurds in particular. They have always seen Kirkuk as their city -- one from which the Kurds were expelled by Saddam and replaced with Arabs who moved into the city," Neep said.
Two major ethnic groups have historically competed for dominance over Kirkuk -- Kurds and Turkomans. The government of Hussein attempted to diminish the claims of both by encouraging Arabs to move to the region from elsewhere in Iraq, and also by forcibly ejecting tens of thousands of the area's Kurds.
The question of Kurdish autonomy has never been formally resolved. With the fall of Hussein, the Kurdish leadership in Kirkuk began to encourage the resettlement of Kurds back to the region, often stirring resentment and hostility among the Arabs settlers who moved there under Hussein.
Kamal Modhhar Ahmad is a Kurdish history professor at Baghdad University and the author of a recently published book on the history of Kirkuk.
He says throughout the region's long history, ethnic, and religious divisions rarely boiled over into major armed conflict. The first notable exception came as the Ottoman Empire was trying to expand its influence in the area in the early 20th century.
"After the Ittihad revolution in Turkey in 1908, a certain amount of support was provided to the nationalist administration of the Turkomans in the area. The [ethno-religious] tensions started to accumulate at that time and have been building up ever since. After the July  revolution in Iraq and the appearance of ardent Arab nationalists in the government -- especially after the coup in February 1963 -- the situation became worse and the so-called Arabization began," Ahmad said.
Faleh Abdul Jabar, an Arab researcher with London University, says Kirkuk's Arab population is now trying to ally itself with other ethnic communities in the region to build a resistance to Kurdish expansion. He says the issue is further complicated by the fact that most of Kirkuk's Arabs do not have the resources to return to their original homes.
"There are demands from the other communities that the Arabs should be ejected from the city. And most of them were poor and they were encouraged by the old government to resettle there in exchange for a free house, for example. And they want to stay in these houses, not to be ejected on the grounds that they are citizens and this is one country," Jabar said.
Alshad Omar is a deputy to Songul Chapuk, the Turkoman representative on the Iraqi Governing Council. Omar claims three million Turkomans live in Iraq and that the community deserves greater rights and representation. The Iraqi Turkomans Front would like to see Kirkuk become the capital of a self-ruled Turkomans region.
"Turkomans look at Kirkuk as their city because the majority [of the people] in Kirkuk are Turkomans,” Omar says. “It used to be so. But now -- after the liberation of Iraq -- too many Kurds came and they took Kirkuk. And we want it to stay as it was -- approximately 65 percent of the Kirkuk city [population] was Turkomans. So, we need Kirkuk for us so we can announce it as a capital for us."
No proper demographic statistics are available for the Kirkuk area. The reports of a massive influx of people, mainly Kurds, has made the situation all the more fluid and uncertain.
The Iraqi Governing Council has made no decision on the status of Kirkuk and is postponing any such move until a permanent government is in place.