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Kirkuk

The northern oil city of Kirkuk, a melting pot of rival communities, reflects in miniature Iraq's turbulent make-up -- dominated by suspicion, frustration and squabbling.

Just as politicians in Baghdad have been struggling for more than 10 weeks to form a national government, the Kurds, Arabs and local Turkman minority of Kirkuk have failed to form their own council executive.

"The situation has reached a critical point," said Tahsin Kahya, a leader of the locak Turkman minority who, with the local Arabs, fear that Kurds are out to seize control of the region.

Kahya, a former head of the Taamin province council, was reelected to the council in January but has since seen Turkman enthusiasm wilt in the continuing political bickering.

Kirkuk, the regional capital of Taamin province, around 250 kilometersmiles) north of Baghdad, is home to some 850,000 people -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, a Turkish-speaking minority backed by authorities in Ankara.

"People are very frustrated, the man in the street doesn't care about the council make-up. He just wants his representatives to get down to work and make sure water and electricity are back on tap," said Colonel Gordon Petrie of the US army.

Besides political problems, Kirkuk -- like the rest of the country -- is not immune to violence.

Last Thursday, three Iraqi policemen were killed and four people wounded when gunmen attacked a new police station in the city, while the day before 10 members of Iraq's special oil facilities protection force were killed in a bomb attack just north of the oil-rich city.

Ethnic tensions do nothing to help calm the situation.

The local Kurdish list controls 26 seats on the council. The Turkmen have nine and the Arabs six.

The Arabs and Turkmen charge that the Kurdish vote was artificially inflated by the enfranchising of thousands of Kurdish returnees who had been expelled from the city under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated regime.

The make-up of the council executive is only one of the issues dividing the communities.

Turkmen and Arabs fear the Kurds want to include Kirkuk province in the semi-autonomous area they already control in northern Iraq, an ambition openly expressed by Kurdish leaders.

The Kurds say they originally were in a majority in Kirkuk province, until Saddam brought in tens of thousands of poor Arabs in an attempt to wrest local control away from them.

A population census to determine the current ethnic make-up of the province was called off when Arabs protested at alleged moves by the Kurds to bring in new Kurdish settlers, according to Captain Kim Tschepen, an intelligence specialist.

Ethnic tension has since risen and while each of the three communities was to have received a key post in the new council, the Kurds are now only prepared to offer one post of deputy governor to both Arabs and Turkmen, according to US officers.

"The ball is in their court to decide who will take this post," said Mahmoud Mohamed Ahmad, a council member from the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Ahmad said he deplored "the mentality of ethnic division" responsible for the deadlock on the council.

In the body's latest session last week, all Turkmen members boycotted the session, while two Arab members made only a brief appearance.

"We want a sharing out of the top jobs, but if the Kurds insist on controlling everything, then let them do it," says a depressed Tahsin Kahya.

His opposite Arab number on the council, Sheikh Abdullah Sami al-Assi, appears just as downcast, but points out that marginalizing Arabs and Turkmen could backfire against the Kurds.

If the Kurds take full control "then if anything goes wrong they will be solely responsible," he says.