KIRKUK, Iraq — Flush from an election day sweep in this divided city, the Kurds who now dominate the provincial council made it clear this month that they intended to do things differently when they conducted their public meeting in Kurdish, not Arabic.
For 90 minutes, about two dozen Kurdish council members debated issues and shared jokes, leaving Arabic-speaking citizens and journalists in the audience scratching their heads and walking out in frustration. U.S. officials in attendance scrambled to replace their usual Arabic-language interpreter with one who spoke Kurdish.
One slightly exasperated Assyrian Christian member, Sylvana Boya Nasir, finally pleaded that she didn't understand what was going on. "I don't object to Kurdish," she said later, "but the language used should be understood by all members."
The episode underscored the tensions dividing ethnic rivals in the northern province of Al Tamim, of which Kirkuk is the capital. Once dominated by Turkmen and then Kurds, Kirkuk became the center of an "Arabization" campaign under Saddam Hussein. The former leader expelled up to 100,000 Kurds and replaced them with Arabs over a 20-year period, in an effort to tighten his grip over the province and its oil, estimated to be 6% of the world's known reserves.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, thousands of Kurds flooded back to Kirkuk, living in refugee camps, squatting on public land and demanding the right to return home.
Today, Kirkuk's diverse population and oil wealth have put it at the top of the national agenda. The city's future has been a contentious topic during negotiations between Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslim Arabs meeting to form a new national government.
For the last two years, feuding groups in Kirkuk coexisted under a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement that prevented any ethnicity from dominating.
But the Jan. 30 election gave Kurds a solid majority -- 63% of the council seats -- leaving Turkmen with 19% and Arabs 12%.
Kurdish leaders in Kirkuk have insisted they will be gracious winners and reach out to their longtime rivals.
"We are extending our hands to the members of the other slates," said Abdulrahman Mustafa, a Kurd and the U.S.-backed governor of Kirkuk, who is likely to retain the job. "They are all our brothers."
Turkmen and Arab leaders, however, say negotiations have yielded few signs of compromise. The recent Kurdish-language council meeting only heightened their anxiety, and a rise in insurgent activity in the area has added to the sense of instability.
Newly elected Turkmen and Arab council members are boycotting meetings until a power-sharing agreement can be hammered out. "If they want stability, we are all going to have to participate," said Tahsin Kahya, a council leader with the Islamic Union of Turkmen. "It's our right to occupy certain posts."
But Kahya's chances of retaining his post as Kirkuk council chief appear slim. He said Kurds recently had informed him that the head of the council must speak Kurdish.
It is not surprising that Kurds are savoring their victory, which comes as new mass graves are uncovered on the city's outskirts, a reminder of Hussein's genocidal campaign against them.
"We are so happy about the election," said Sabir Ahmed Omar, 54, whose two sons were killed by Hussein's regime because they were fighters with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. Omar himself is a former resistance fighter. He proudly raised a baggy pant leg to reveal a deep scar on his knee from a grenade attack 35 years ago.
His family was forced to abandon their home and move north in the late 1980s, he said, but they returned last year and built a two-room, cinderblock house on vacant government land on the edge of the city.
"We are dreaming about the changes that now will take place," Omar said with a broad smile as two grandchildren played at his feet.
A top priority of the Kurds is to help the 30,000 to 50,000 refugees who are still living in temporary camps around the city, said Mustafa, the governor. Compensating those families and building new housing could cost more than $500 million, he said.
Turkmen and Arabs, meanwhile, are still stinging from the election results, which they argue were distorted by thousands of Kurds from other cities flooding to Kirkuk on election day. Shortly before the vote, Iraq's electoral commission ruled that up to 70,000 displaced Kurds could vote in the province though they did not live here.
"The election is not legal," Kahya said. "The results don't reflect reality." Kurds dismiss such complaints. "It doesn't matter whether they accept the results or not," Mustafa said. "These are the results."
Arabs fear that Kurds plan to force out thousands of families, mostly Shiites from the south who were moved to Kirkuk in Hussein's campaign. Under Article 58 of Iraq's interim constitution, Kurds are permitted to return and Arabs must leave, though they will be compensated.