Violence is growing in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, long a hotbed of ethnic tensions among its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen residents. It now appears that the long dispute over the city's status is not likely to be resolved this year, even though an article in the Iraqi constitution calls for a referendum on it before 2008.
Iraqi Kurds want Kirkuk to be part of their autonomous region, a move which many of the city's Turkmen and Arabs oppose.
In his 20-year career as a fighter in the Kurdish militia, Gen. Sarhat Qadir stormed and captured Kirkuk twice. The first time was in 1991, during a short-lived Kurdish uprising, which was crushed after a matter of weeks by Saddam Hussein's forces.
The second time was in April 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, and the Kurds seized Kirkuk, tore down statues of Saddam, and danced in the streets waving the flag of Kurdistan.
Today Qadir is a brigadier general in Kirkuk's police force. He says that being a rebel in the mountains was much easier.
"In the old days, things were better, and I liked it more because at that time our enemy was clear and he was in front of us. But now our enemy ... we don't see it — it's invisible."
Portraits of dead policemen decorate the halls of Kirkuk's main police station. In the past two years, Qadir says, insurgents have killed more then 500 Iraqi police and soldiers in and around the city, including his brother and his cousin. Qadir himself narrowly survived an assassination attempt after someone slipped poison into his Pepsi.
American forces in Kirkuk face a constant threat from roadside bombs — more than five are discovered around the city on any given day.
U.S. Army Sgt. John Zimmerman volunteered for his second tour of duty in Kirkuk. When he first served in Kirkuk in 2004, he says the city was safe, compared with places like Baghdad and Fallujah. He says he never thought the situation in the city would deteriorate so dramatically.
Kirkuk sits on top of the largest oil fields in northern Iraq. To better control the area, Saddam deported hundreds of thousands of native Kurds and Turkmen, and replaced them with Arab settlers.
The Iraqi constitution was supposed to undo this ethnic cleansing. It calls for a census and a referendum to determine the future status of the city before Dec. 31.
The Kurds are confident the vote will lead to Kirkuk's annexation to Iraqi Kurdistan. But many non-Kurdish Iraqi politicians remain firmly opposed.
"They are wasting their time," says Salah al-Mutlaq, an Iraqi parliament member from the Sunni Arab National Dialogue Front. "They will not get Kirkuk. If Kirkuk will go to Kurdistan, then there's a civil war."
But amid the escalating insurgent violence in Kirkuk, there are some non-Kurds in the city who support joining Kurdistan.
"The services and security in Kurdistan are better than in other parts of Iraq," says Ayden Ansi, a Turkmen tire salesman. "If we join, Kirkuk will become safer, too."
But the Kurds appear to have lost this round of the struggle for the city. American and Iraqi officials say it is highly unlikely the referendum will take place this year.
There is growing criticism within Kurdistan over the Kurdish leadership's Kirkuk strategy.
Asos Hardi, a Kurdish newspaper writer, says the Kurds have not done enough to reach out to the Arab and Turkmen communities in Kirkuk.
"Even if we will win the Kirkuk province in a referendum, till there will be at least 30 to 40 percent of the population [who] don't want us.
"More important than winning the ... the referendum is winning their hearts and minds," Hardi says, adding that the Kurdish leadership has failed to address that issue.
Back at the police station, Gen. Qadir lists the names of at least half a dozen insurgent groups his men are fighting in the city. But this veteran Kurdish fighter says more schools and jobs — not bullets — are the key to capturing Kirkuk for the Kurds.