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.
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 … 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 … 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.
• Tomorrow: A United Nations solution is in the works that could calm Kirkuk.