Kirkuk, Iraq -- Col. Mohammed Sharif sat in a nondescript trailer, surrounded by walkie-talkies and AK-47s, chain-smoking as an air conditioner blew a winter gale onto his desk.
Sharif is a longtime commander of the Kurdish peshmerga militia, which now is bearing arms for a South African security firm, Erinys International, that guards the nation's oil infrastructure. Hundreds of Sharif's men now patrol the Kirkuk region, one of the largest oil fields in the world, with estimated reserves of 10 billion barrels.
"We are establishing order and protecting the oil," Sharif said. "Today, we are Erinys, but tomorrow, we hope we will be the army."
Only two miles from Sharif's trailer on the leafy campus of the Northern Oil Co., the state-owned firm that manages northern Iraq's oil fields, a rival view came from the heavily fortified bunker of the provincial police force: The Kurds' desire for autonomy -- and control of the northern oil fields -- is one of the destabilizing factors that could tear apart the entire nation.
"The situation could become a nightmare here," said Brig. Torhan Abdulrahman, an ethnic Turkmen who oversees a force composed mostly of Arabs. "Oil could cause civil war. It is our curse."
The three autonomous Kurdish provinces of northeastern Iraq have little oil and have long cast an envious eye on neighboring Kirkuk, which has the petroleum riches necessary to fuel and finance an independent Kurdistan.
Although Kurds formed a majority of the Kirkuk region's population as recently as 60 years ago, their numbers have been diluted by the gradual expulsion of Kurds under a program of forced "Arabization" by successive Baghdad governments. The area's population is believed to be more or less evenly divided between Kurds and ethnic Arabs and Turkmen -- although each group claims to be the majority.
In recent months, Kurds have forcibly expelled thousands of ethnic Arabs from their homes. Most U.S. observers have interpreted this struggle as motivated by the desire to regain ancestral homes. But the underlying source of the conflict, many Iraqis say, is oil.
The region's oil "should be in the hands of the government of Kurdistan, the people of Kirkuk," said Jalal Aziz, the Kirkuk regional boss of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The PUK is one of two main Kurdish parties that fought a guerrilla war against the Iraqi government for 30 years and together governed Iraq's three northeastern provinces in the 1990s as an autonomous, U. S-supported region.
Leaders of local Arab tribes warn that they are arming themselves to keep the oil industry out of Kurdish hands.
"The Kurds want to take over the oil," said Ghassan al-Assi, chief of the large al-Obeid tribe and leader of the Arab Bloc and Tribes Assembly, a newly formed national organization.
"Arab people are gathering to defend us against the Kurds," said al-Assi, whose headquarters is 20 miles west of Kirkuk. "All Arab groups and towns are telling us, 'Just say the word and we will send fighters to help you.' "
Into this volatile mix stepped Erinys, a firm that was formed in 2001 by former commandos for the South African and British special forces.
Last year, the U.S. occupation authorities gave Erinys a $40 million contract to recruit, train, equip and manage more than 14,000 Iraqi personnel to protect Iraq's 260 oil facilities and 7,000 miles of pipeline. Erinys' Baghdad headquarters refers all press inquiries to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation authority. CPA officials did not respond to repeated requests by The Chronicle for comment.
Erinys has subcontracted with some local Arab tribes to protect pipelines passing through their areas, but in the ethnically mixed region of Kirkuk, the company's force is "almost completely peshmerga," Sharif said.
Oil pipelines in the region have been repeatedly sabotaged, including six attacks in the past two weeks. On June 16, gunmen in Kirkuk killed Ghazi Talabani, the Northern Oil Co.'s top security officer and Sharif's nominal boss. While Talabani was a distant relative of PUK leader Jalal Talabani, he had been a security agent for Northern Oil for many years during Saddam Hussein's regime and thus was viewed by many Kurds as a traitor to their cause.
Two ethnic Arabs have been arrested in connection with the killing, but Abdulrahman, commander of the provincial police force, said the investigation remains unresolved.
He said killings have proliferated in Kirkuk because police authority is blocked by the hundreds of armed peshmerga roaming the city who are members of both the Erinys force and the PUK's militia.
"For the past year, the government hasn't been able to do anything because of these two organizations," Abdulrahman said, referring to the PUK and the other main Kurdish peshmerga group, the Kurdish Democratic Party. "One of the reasons for the failure of police work is that these organizations are interfering with the police."
Sharif, who was a guerrilla field commander during bloody fighting against Hussein's army in the 1980s, said the peshmerga now are the only disciplined Iraqi fighting force that the Americans can count on. He said his fighters have been effective in stopping many sabotage attempts on the oil facilities.
The jockeying for power is expected to kick into high gear after June 30, when the U.S.-led occupation coalition turns over partial sovereign control to a new Iraqi government.
In recent weeks, Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani have threatened to withhold recognition of the Baghdad government and to end all cooperation with it. This threat -- which stopped short of suggesting full independence for the Kurds -- set off alarm bells among U.S. and Iraqi officials.
On Monday, Iraq's designated president, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, flew to Kirkuk with U.S. administrator Paul Bremer to symbolize his government's commitment to holding the city under Baghdad's rule.
"Kirkuk has a special place, especially in this era," al-Yawer said in a heavily guarded press conference on an American military base. "I speak to all Iraqis in general that Kirkuk is the destiny and fate of Iraq. If we can, and I am sure we will, succeed and live among each other in Kirkuk, I am sure we can do it all over Iraq."
Indeed, despite the heated rhetoric about Kirkuk's oil, a closer look at Iraq's unique formula for federal revenue sharing shows that oil also is a glue that will force the Kurds to remain with Baghdad.
For the past decade, under a U.N.-mandated agreement, the three Kurdish provinces have received 13.5 percent of Iraq's total oil revenues -- which in most years amounts to more than $1 billion annually, more than half of the autonomous regional government's budget. If the Kurds split with Baghdad, they would forfeit this income. And it is highly unlikely that an independent Kurdistan would be able to pump enough oil -- or export it -- to finance its government.
In past years, the Northern Oil Co. has produced about one-quarter of Iraq's total oil output of 2.8 million barrels per day. Officials estimate that only 20 percent of the company's oil wells are located in areas populated by Kurds, while the rest are in Arab or Turkmen areas. The pipeline that carries northern Iraq's oil to the export terminal on the Mediterranean Sea at Ceyhan, Turkey, passes through long stretches of Arab tribal territory, making it highly susceptible to sabotage.
"If I were a political Kurd, I would try to get more oil money from the central government rather than trying to get control of the oil in this area," said Manaa al-Lobaydi, deputy director of the Northern Oil Co. "There is no possibility of independence, because there is not enough oil."
Iraq's tribes and clans
In addition to the three major divisions -- Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds - - Iraq is split into some 150 tribes and 2,000 clans in a system that predates the birth of Christ. Tribal affinity is one of the few characteristics that most Iraqis share; loyalty often ranks higher than religious affiliation. A tribe, however, may include Shiites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds.
In the Kirkuk region, the major Arab tribes include the al-Bayati, al- Saadun, al-Jibouri, al-Obeid and the Shammar. Al-Obeid is one of Iraq's largest with 3 million members, while the influential Shammar's 1.5 million members include Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer.
Arabs: Between 75 and 80 percent of the Iraqi population is Arab and about 15 percent is Kurdish. Turkmen, Assyrian and other ethnic groups comprise about 5 percent.
Kurds: The Kurds represent the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in Iraq and are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Turkmen: The third-largest ethnic group, the Turkmen, is made up of mainly village dwellers living along the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions. Most are Sunnis.
Sunnis: Sunnis believe the first four caliphs, or supreme religious leaders, were the rightful successors of the Prophet Mohammed. They are roughly 85 percent of the world's Muslims. In Iraq, between 32 and 35 percent are Sunnis.
Shiites: Shiites insist that the true leaders of Islam are the descendants of Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law. Shiite Muslims are 15 percent of the world's Muslims. In Iraq, between 60 and 65 percent are Shiites.
E-mail Robert Collier at email@example.com.