Sitting on vast untapped oilfields, the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk has the natural resources to become one of the wealthiest places in the Middle East. But a standoff has developed between local Kurdish leaders and Baghdad over rights of ownership. And in Kirkuk itself, ethnic tensions are rising.
In mid-2003, as Baghdad fell, Simzad Saeed, 39, returned to Kirkuk to build a house on land he did not own and to stake a claim in a new homeland. He did not mean Iraq. Ever since the Iraqi central government has paid Saeed's salary but, like roughly 200,000 other returned Kurds, he pays his dues to 'Kurdistan'.
"I feel at home," he said from his new lounge. "I was forced to leave after the first Gulf war [in 1991] and we didn't return to our original home six years ago because my father still lives there."
Across town in a ramshackle suburb built on a dried-up swamp, Faisal Mathor Mohammed, a 69-year-old Arab retired army officer from Baghdad, sat sweating in his mud-brick house, which he says was promised to him 22 years ago. He laid down his roots with a government grant.
"I went to the mayor in my town and asked him," the former Iraqi army officer said. "They gave me land in Kirkuk and 10,000 dinars ($30,000) - enough to buy a house outright and furnish it fully in 1987. I have lived here ever since."
Strewn across the landscape between both neighbourhoods are rows of shooting flames, roaring like Roman candles from the desert plain. Shifting winds send an oily film in both directions, letting no one in town forget what lies beneath their feet and what will soon shape their collective destinies.
Over the past six years of violence in Iraq, oil has been the flashpoint in Kirkuk, a city forever home to a combustible mixture of races. Kurds have always claimed Kirkuk as a homeland; Turkomans, Assyrians and Arabs have at various times based empires here. The resulting melting pot of races and clans has never mixed comfortably.
Since the US declared its invasion a success in mid-2003, Kirkuk has seen its biggest population shift in centuries, with Kurds capitalising on a power vacuum in Baghdad and Arabs rushing to reinforce their foothold. Kurds have been accused of ethnically engineering Iraq's most divided city to lay the foundations for a nascent Kurdistan. Arabs have been accused of doing anything - including bombings - to stop the city from escaping their grasp.
All along, Kirkuk has had the feel of a boom-town-in-waiting, sitting on a subterranean lake of fabulous wealth that would one day create fortunes.
"That day is closer than ever," said Sharlet Yohana, 50, an Assyrian woman who works in the Iraqi government-owned oil extractor, the North Oil company. "The real conflict here is about oil," she said from the sitting room of her middle-class home in an Assyrian Christian neighbourhood. "Oil may well provide our future wealth and comforts, but it will also be our damnation.
"We will never have peace until the political problems surrounding the oil are solved. Everyone will suffer, far more than we are now: Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians. Already we have a curfew from midnight to 5am, and many Christians are blown up or assassinated. They are bringing this to a head now, before the foreign contractors come in."
Later this month, Baghdad will announce the results of a tender for service contracts to start oil extraction. Last week Hussein al-Shahristani, the oil minister, announced a shortlist of companies in the running, among them BP, BG International and Premier Oil.
Foreign companies have circled Kirkuk since the fall of Saddam. Earlier this month, Norwegian and Turkish companies helped one large crude oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan, Tawke, to come on stream for the first time in Iraq since 1972. Kurdish leaders cheered like football fans as live footage was beamed back to Irbil of tankers unloading at an export facility nearby, which will eventually pipe the oil north to Turkey.
A Norwegian engineer stood at the site in the Kurdish foothills where tankers will cart their cargo away, alongside a drawling Texan computer programmer in a straw hat, a Canadian drilling expert and a Turkish site manager. A Kurdish employee pointed to the straw-coloured nearby ranges that border Turkey and said: "This is the land of Saladin, the great Kurdish warrior. He wanted to make peace with everyone, the Crusaders included. But in the end he knew where his home was and how to protect it. And so do we."
Tawke is a relatively new oilfield, the first to be developed since the invasion. Its inauguration was backed by Baghdad despite the central government's anger at a series of production-sharing agreements between the Kurdish government and private companies. This deal, Baghdad says, is acceptable because revenue will be piped back to central government coffers, which will in turn distribute 17% of the proceeds to the Kurdish administration.
To Baghdad, this is how it should be: it runs the show and the provinces pocket their share. The Kurds, however, are celebrating the symbolism of oil dollars flowing from fields they control. The Kurdish government's separate deals have not been nearly as well received by Baghdad, which is withholding up to $400m in revenue that it deems the Kurds have made through contracts they struck that steer profits away from their rightful place in the national coffers.
Iraq's oil minister said last week that Baghdad would not pay any firms who signed deals with the Kurdish regional government. In return, the Kurds are threatening to veto any oil deals signed by the Iraqi government that they don't like.
All sides have been watching the posturing with great interest. "What they do up there will be very instructive for us," said Ahmed al-Othman, 71, a Kurdish native of Kirkuk. Othman goes round town in the traditional Kurdish shirwal (baggy trousers) and says his closest friends are Arabs. "I've never left and I have never thought to leave," he said. "Until recently.
"Last year, my brother was killed by an explosion in the market and so were two shopkeepers I drank coffee with for years. Since then, things have not been the same. Arab eyes don't always look at me now and the marketplace is not what it was. The greed surrounding all the oil may change this place."
Marketplaces were for centuries the one place that locals of all sects would meet. Fruit, falafel and Iraqi bread are still sold alongside butchered lambs dripping blood on to rubbish-strewn pavements.
Locals still mix there, but so, too, do suicide bombers. Kirkuk until recently was a killing field of the Sunni insurgency. But security officials, among them US officers, suggest Kirkuk's militants have long had a Ba'athist flavour. "This was a city that Saddam long tried to orientate towards his regime and to Arab Iraq," said one local intelligence official, a Turkoman.
"There was a strong al-Qaida presence and there are still sleeper cells, but the Ba'athists were stirring the pot more than anywhere else in Iraq except Tikrit."
Major-General Jamal Bakr, the regional police chief, said security had improved about 80% since mid-2007. He confirmed that militants had regularly tried to blow up oil pipelines: "But what we have seen here is similar to the rest of Iraq. Al-Qaida trying to cause havoc, no more, no less." Sunni extremists were foiled in their most recent terrorist attempt when a Syrian youth wearing a suicide vest was tackled trying to enter the Shia al-Hussein mosque.
One of Bakr's officers showed photographs of sappers cutting the suicide vest off the would-be bomber. "He was skinny, and looked unusual with this bomb strapped to him," the officer explained. "That's the only reason we don't have a new sectarian war here. The bomb was enormous."
From his office in a heavily guarded compound at the centre of town, Kirkuk's mayor, Abdul Rahman Fatah, conceded that oil was a major obstacle to progress in Kirkuk, but claimed it was secondary to the continuation of a central government-funded project that pays for Kurds to return to Kirkuk and offers Arabs money to leave. It is this law that funded the return of Simzad Saeed, who has since started work at the agency that paid for his return.
"The real conflict is between the politicians," said Fatah. "It is not really a conflict between the ethnic groups and religions. The issues here are not new; they are historical and well known. Even the Arabs who came here as part of Arabisation were victims. They were sent here by the previous regime and most came from the south of Iraq. Kirkuk was a much better option for them."
Nearby, in an office set up to facilitate the Kurdish and Arab movements, the director, Tahsen Ali Weli, said 92,000 families displaced by Saddam had applied to return, all Kurds or Turkomans.
A total of 28,000 families has so far been allowed to return, most to homes built on new land. Each family has been given 10m dinars (£5,000). The precise number of Arab families who relocated to Kirkuk under Saddam is not known, but 14,700 have applied to leave: they will get 20m dinars (£10,000) each.
Advocates of the Arab claim to Kirkuk, among them an outspoken Sunni MP, Osama al-Najafi, insist the programme, which is authorised by article 140 of Iraq's constitution, is no longer relevant, because it has expired. "The UN in its final report said article 140 was not suitable to solve this problem in its present form," al-Najafi said.
The UN report was released in April after two years of searching for a solution for Kirkuk. The UN recommended a jointly administered region and a referendum to decide the city's future racial complexion. But with the population and mix having changed so markedly and with Baghdad fearing it is now on the wrong side of the ledger, it is highly unlikely to endorse such a ballot.
"The report was unjust and one-sided," al-Najafi complained. "They dealt with the Kurdistan province and Iraq as distinct areas, not one country. And they compared the situation to Northern Ireland and the UK. And when they dealt with the Arab perspective, they put inside quotes and added question marks.
"The Kirkuk problem comes down to oil," he said. "The Kurds want the funds to finance the proposed state of Kurdistan. It is enshrined in the constitution that oil and gas is for all Iraqis. But they have signed a range of contracts from those that are without agreement from the central government.
"This situation cannot continue for long. The tensions are growing and there is no agreement about the shape of the future Iraqi state. There are deep divisions and they are not drawing any closer."
To many Kurds, the divisions are indeed becoming more entrenched. "We don't see this so much as Northern Ireland as a new Jerusalem," said one senior member of the Kurdish parliament. "This is a conflict with a history and we are prepared to play a long game on it. The oil is bringing things to a head rapidly and Baghdad feels it is starting to lose significant ground.
"The Turks remain uneasy in the north, but we will do nothing to provoke them. Time is on our side."
Perhaps realising this, some small-scale rearguard actions are taking place. Several of the Arab families who applied for and received their £10,000 grant to leave took the money and then stayed, prompting claims from Turkomans and Kurds that the article 140 project is now about consolidating the remnants of Arabisation.
Among the hangers-on is retired army officer Faisal Mohammed. "I got the money from the government, but I'm not leaving and I won't be leaving. My sons are here and they won't leave and so, too, our families. If both governments leave the future of the city to the residents, I'm sure we can do a better job of sorting this mess out."