Reporting from Kirkuk, Iraq — Across a bleak desert landscape dotted with blazing oil fires on the northern edge of this ancient city, new houses are rising from the sands -- thousands of them in neat rows, mostly unfinished save for their gray cinder-block shells.
A startling sight in a country still waiting for any significant reconstruction to occur, it contains clues to the biggest of the unresolved conflicts in Iraq that could yet plunge the country into chaos as U.S. forces withdraw.
The homes are being built by Kurds who have poured into the northern province of Kirkuk to reassert, they say, their claim to land from which they were expelled by Saddam Hussein in an effort to create an Arab majority.
The oil fires illustrate the main reason the land is so hotly contested: Kirkuk is sitting on an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil and produces a quarter of Iraq's current output. That's enough to sustain an independent state should the Kurds get their way and annex the area to the largely autonomous Kurdistan enclave to the north -- and to bankrupt the state of Iraq should the revenue be lost.
Arabs and ethnic Turkmens, who also live here and want the province to remain under Iraqi control, are dismayed by the size of the Kurdish influx, which they say far exceeds the numbers driven out by Hussein. They suspect that Kurdish outsiders are moving to the area to influence the outcome of a referendum on whether to absorb Kirkuk into Kurdistan.
"It's ridiculous. It's impossible. The city is congested with people," said Hussein Ali Saleh, who goes by the name Abu Saddam and heads the Arab Unity Bloc, the largest Arab political force in the province. "Kurds are clearly in the majority now. But most of them are not original Kirkukis."
The dispute has contributed to delays threatening national elections scheduled for January, as members of parliament have squabbled over whether all those living in Kirkuk should be allowed to vote.
But it goes far deeper than that. At stake are existential questions about the identity of Iraq itself: Should it be a nation ruled by a strong central government in which all sects and ethnicities coexist? Or a looser federation of regions, such as the Kurdistan enclave, in which Iraq's different communities have the right to determine their own governance?
The question promises to loom large over the upcoming elections, and risks embroiling Iraq in a new conflict, between Arabs and Kurds, and perhaps with Iraq's neighbors, if it is not resolved peacefully by the time U.S. forces withdraw, said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
Turkey, Syria and Iran are watching closely, fearful that their own Kurdish minorities might seek independence if Kirkuk is annexed to Kurdistan. U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno has identified Arab-Kurdish tensions as the "No. 1 driver of instability" in Iraq.
"Kirkuk is the issue in Iraq," Hiltermann said. "It's all about oil, but it's also about the identity of Iraq."
In the heart of the city, evidence abounds of Kirkuk's long history as a melting pot for the region's sects and ethnicities.
In the bazaar hugging the foot of the ancient citadel that dominates the skyline, merchants call out their wares in Kurdish, Turkmen and Arabic. Signs in those three languages jostle for attention in the narrow alleyways crammed with stalls selling cheap plastic shoes, gaudy fabric and sticky traditional sweets.
In one crumbling stone alcove, Kurdish and Turkmen tailors work shoulder to shoulder on identical Singer sewing machines, stitching pants, jackets and skirts out of cheap cloth.
"The problems are only among the political parties. We Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish brothers live peacefully together," said Abbas Kamal, 29, who is Turkmen. He wants Kirkuk to remain under Iraqi control, but he says he wouldn't object if it became part of Kurdistan.
"We never have any problems here. We never have any political arguments," agreed co-worker Awad Said, 37, a Kurd who never left Kirkuk. He would prefer that the province be annexed to Kurdistan, but says he wouldn't mind if it wasn't.
"The important thing is for us to live together," he said.
There's little sign here of the tensions that have inflamed tempers in Iraq's parliament, and Kirkuk has escaped relatively unscathed from the sectarian violence that plagued much of the rest of Iraq a few years ago. The Sunni insurgency took its toll, as it did elsewhere, but violence is sharply down, and there have been none of the sectarian massacres that ravaged Baghdad from 2005 to '07.
Nonetheless, some residents say they see worrying indicators that the political fissures are starting to reach the streets. Recently, a Turkmen shot to death a Kurd at the edge of the bazaar. Police attributed the incident to a personal quarrel, but they found a picture of Hussein in the killer's home on which he had written, "Life is worthless without you," suggesting political undertones to the killing.