The oil-rich Kirkuk province was considered a model of Iraqi diversity. Now, however, it has become a ticking time bomb.
Estimated to have four per cent of the world's oil revenues, Kirkuk, which is home to Iraqi Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds, announced last week that the province will participate in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence vote — even though it is not part of the Kurdistan region.
The move sparked tensions between Kirkuk’s different ethnic leaders and angered the authorities in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi rejected the decision, while his spokesman, Saad Al Hadithi, called the decision "illegal and unconstitutional".
"Provinces that don't belong to the autonomous region of Kurdistan can't impose decisions without the federal government's approval, and Kirkuk is one of these regions," Mr Hadithi said.
The Kirkuk provincial council held a vote on Tuesday on whether Kirkuk should take part in the referendum on Kurdish independence, which is scheduled for September 25.
Only 24 of the 41 council members attended the vote, with 23 voting in favour of participating in the referendum and one abstaining. The remaining council members — all Arabs and Turkmen — boycotted the vote. Instead, they issued statements denouncing the vote as unconstitutional.
The decision is expected to have dangerous implications not only for the future of Kirkuk but also for Iraq as a whole.
Iraq's Kurds plan to hold the referendum in three governorates that make up their region — Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Duhok — as well as disputed areas that are controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad. Kirkuk is one of them.
Arshad Al Salhi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told The National that the council's decision "will create new conflicts in Iraq".
“It will also increase tensions between Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish residents creating a civil war in Kirkuk,” he said. "Once again the administrative council of Kirkuk proved that it no longer works in partnership with parties in the province.
“It adopts an individualistic approach that goes against the Iraqi constitution and laws that are in effect throwing Kirkuk into the chaos of nationalist conflicts that will lead nowhere but to problems and loss.”
Mr Al Salhi said the decision to include Kirkuk in the Kurdish referendum was a clear violation to Article 143 of the Iraqi constitution, which stipulates that Kirkuk is outside the borders of Kurdistan.
"There is no constitutional situation to hold the referendum in Kirkuk,” he said. “Taking this decision in the absence of Turkmen and Arab members of council renders the decision illegitimate when it comes to its representation of various components in the province.”
Concerns for the safety of Kirkuk’s residents have been on the rise as violence and clashes are expected to erupt if the Kurdish referendum takes place.
"There is always a risk of rioting in Kirkuk, and in the past there have been lethal shootings at such events," Michael Knights, Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.
However, security forces are well prepared and are focused on reducing the risks of confrontation with opponents of the referendum, Mr Knights said.
Kurdish forces took control of the province and other disputed areas in the summer of 2014, when ISIL swept across northern and central Iraq and the Iraqi armed forces crumbled.
The move infuriated the Turkmen and Arabs of Kirkuk as the success of the Kurdish forces in keeping ISIL out also gave the Kurds the upper hand in local politics.
In March, Kirkuk authorities decided to raise the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over public buildings, an act which was roundly criticised by the federal government.
In early August, Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim said the region "has been and will be" part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The move also raised concerns that the Kurds are using the fight against ISIL as an excuse to cement their hold in the city.
Since 2003, Kurdish migration to Kirkuk has increased significantly, which Baghdad says is "considerably changing Kirkuk's demographics”.
Kirkuk is often referred to as "little Iraq”, as most politicians believe that the governorate is "a microcosm of Iraq", representing in microcosm the major conflicts between the nation’s diverse communities.
Kurds, on the other hand, refer to Kirkuk city as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”, the city they lost and yearn to get back.
Meanwhile, many Arabs, Turkmen and Christians claim that Kurdish authorities in Kirkuk use tactics — including murder, kidnapping and physical intimidation — to force minorities to leave the governorate, thus altering the area’s demographic composition.
Turkey and Iran have been critical of Kurdistan's increasing influence over the city, as they too have a Kurdish minority and oppose the upcoming referendum.
Ziya Meral, a researcher specialising in Turkey and the Middle East, said: "Turkey has made its position clear: it opposes a Kurdish independence in Iraq at this moment, and sees any inclusion of Kirkuk in an emerging Kurdistan as a trigger for conflict."
Turkey will respond diplomatically and economically to Kurdish ambitions, Mr Meral added.
"Turkey will seek to use its economic leverage on the Kurdistan Regional Government. Ankara is facing a complex challenge: it does not want to undermine the ruling party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), yet at the same time it wants to stop the KRG from becoming an independent country,” he said.
Mr Meral said that in the long run, Kurdish independence in Iraq is "inevitable and does not pose a threat to Turkey as Ankara can work with Iraqi Kurds".
"Yet, in the short and medium term, Turkey sees further fragmentation of Iraq as a threat and complication in a region with multiple ongoing conflicts and historic shifts," he added.