A referendum on the status of ethnically diverse and oil-rich Kirkuk will test its peaceful resolve.
When a truck bomb blew off the front of the Quoria district police station here and killed seven people in January, fear raced through this ethnically and religiously mixed northern city that it, too, would face the sectarian strife tearing apart Baghdad.
But on a recent afternoon, Police Chief Abdullah Taja Salahudin showed US soldiers the progress in rebuilding the station, presenting it as a sign of Kirkuk's determination to reestablish peace.
"Kirkuk is in better condition than most cities in Iraq, and that is because for so long we have all these religions and populations in this one place," he says. "People have known for a long time how to live together, and now they refuse to give in to any trouble."
It's this resistance to provocation that has kept Kirkuk from descending into the kind of vengeful violence that has flared elsewhere, Kirkuki and US military officials say.
A Muslim Turkoman, Chief Taja has demonstrated this resolve while promoting the security of this city of Kurds, Turkomans, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Aside from that January truck bomb, he has survived four improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. And in June 2006, a car bomb destroyed his house.
As encouraging as that determination has been, all agree that Kirkuk remains one of the biggest tests of Iraq's future. A major hurdle will be the resolution on its status – either as an Iraqi province linked with Baghdad or joined to the adjacent autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
Iraq's Constitution calls for this issue to be resolved by a referendum among Kirkuk's population by the end of 2007. Most observers agree that sticking to the constitutional calendar is problematic at least – a census is supposed to be taken first and boundaries redrawn – and disastrous at worst. A referendum, which the Kurds would expect to win, could open the door to deeper strife and even the breakup of Iraq.
Underlying all this is Kirkuk's vast oil wealth and the struggle for its control. Who controls the oil, people here say, will determine who controls Kirkuk.