Iraqi Kurdistan is wrapping up an unusually free-wheeling election campaign that is likely to shift, if not overturn, the political order of this semi-autonomous region when the votes are cast on Saturday.
But amid the calls for change and allegations of nepotism and corruption, Kurdistan's politicians do agree on one issue: The desire for the region's borders to be extended into the oil-rich area around Kirkuk – an issue that was supposed to be put to a referendum in December 2007, but was delayed by an ethnic-Arab faction in the Iraqi parliament.
As the American combat role in Iraq diminishes, one of the major tasks for the US has become trying to prevent a flare-up of tensions between Arabs and Kurds, centered around the land claims, which some fear could ignite a new front in the war in Iraq.
Recent incidents, including a confrontation at the Mosul dam between Kurdish forces and their Iraqi Army counterparts, raised fears that the simmering tension could escalate as both sides stake their claims ahead of national elections near the end of the year.
Huge amounts of money and power at stake
The US military has been trying to help build trust between Kurdish and Iraqi Army commanders and political leaders on the ground, including informing each other of troop movements, sharing intelligence, and creating joint command posts.
That has had some success. But with huge amounts of money and power at stake, the problem is a much wider one.
"It's the most dangerous course of action for Iraq that if the Arab-Kurd issues are not resolved peacefully they will dissolve into armed conflict and that is a very real possibility," says Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of US forces in seven northern Iraqi provinces.
At issue is a 300-mile arc of disputed territory that the Kurdish regional government believes should be under its control but is within the borders of territory administered by the central government. Almost all of those areas are along the "Green Line" – the de facto border that has divided Iraqi Kurdistan from central government territory since the Kurds broke away after the 1991 Gulf War.
Kurds, feeling betrayed, warn war could break out
The issue of the Kurdish-Arab division of power and resources is a broad one, but centers around Kirkuk, the disputed city at the heart of the northern oil fields. Kirkuk's fate is tied up in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which would allow Kurds expelled by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s to be able to return, as well as a census and a referendum to decide whether the city should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan or an independent province. Since being blocked in the Iraqi parliament, the referendum has been stuck in Iraq's constitutional court.
The article is part of a 2005 constitution drafted under US auspices that deferred some of Iraq's most fundamental decisions and has been called a ticking time bomb.
"Expect war," Kurdish leader Khasro Ghoran says bluntly. "For 80 years we have been shedding blood for these areas and we're not going to give up. If Article 140 is not implemented, there will be war."
Mr. Goran, who was deputy provincial governor until provincial elections in January broke the Kurdish hold on power in Mosul, is more publicly hard-line than most. But he exemplifies the depth of resentment between Iraqi Arabs who believe the Kurds are making a power grab and Kurdish officials who believe they are being betrayed by Iraq's Shiite-led government and its allies.
"If we had borders with a neutral state – if we had borders with Israel, with Armenia, with the Ukraine, with any other country, it would be better for us. If we had an ocean between us it would be better for us," he says.
Ultimate solution must be political
Without even a census to determine the demographics of Kirkuk and other areas, sorting out who should control the disputed areas is a daunting task. Although the immediate danger is on the ground, the solution has to be a high-level political settlement between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Arbil.
"The challenge here is to undo through democratic means what was done by force," says Alex Laskaris, head of the US State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninevah. "Saddam arbitrarily drew lines – moved people north, moved people south. That's very easy for a dictatorship because you can do it. Trying to do it democractically is going to be different."
How the tensions are playing out in Ninevah
In Ninevah Province, which contains large areas in dispute, the new governor Atheel al-Nujaifi was elected on a platform widely seen as anti-Kurdish. Sunni Arabs had previously boycotted the political process but in January Mr. Nujaifi's al-Hadbaa party won a majority of seats, reversing the balance of power in what had been an almost completely Kurdish-controlled provincial council.
Nujaifi has pointedly made an effort at asserting provincial control over areas claimed by the Kurdish regional government. At one point a refusal by Kurdish militiamen to allow him into Bashiqa, within Ninevah's provincial boundaries, came close to gunfire.
"What the Kurds are saying about how they want to divide the area is illogical and unnatural," says Nujaifi. He said he believed the July 25 elections for the Kurdish regional government could improve the climate if the Kurdish opposition, seen as less hard-line, makes headway against the two parties which hold a virtual monopoly on power there.
Nujaifi says the US is allied too closely with the Kurds. At a time when many Iraqi politicians are striving to distance themselves from American involvement, incumbent Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has appeared with former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilizad in the final week of campaigning.
Nujaifi warns that if Sunni Arabs believe they're being treated unfairly they could abandon the political process. The insurgency in Iraq was fueled by Sunni Arabs disenfranchised when the US dissolved Iraq's former security institutions and prevented many former Baath Party members from getting jobs.
"Through tremendous political effort we were able to enter the political arena and convince the people that political work can translate into real results. If we're not successful at doing this there will be some very forceful reactions," the governor says.
Although the Kurds have traditionally expected help from US forces, American commanders trying to defuse tension on the ground are making it clear they won't stand in the middle.
"I told them, 'I'm taking my guys and I'm separating myself so if you start fighting it's your decision,' " says Col. Gary Volesky, describing the incident in Bashiqa where Kurdish forces prevented Iraqi forces from entering. "I said, 'If this goes violent we're not supporting anyone.' "