KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - In Iraq's northern oil city Kirkuk, home to a volatile mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, politicians and residents fear a possible explosion of ethnic conflict when American troops leave.
With prospects that U.S. forces will leave Iraq by December 31, the city turns uncertainly to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to keep the peace in an area contested by Iraq's central government and semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan.
"We do not trust the Iraqi forces' ability to preserve security and order after the withdrawal of American forces," said government worker Ibrahim Mohammed, a Kurd. "Security will deteriorate at the same speed as the withdrawal."
"I really hope this will not happen and American forces will remain in Kirkuk. It is my wish for the new year."
Kirkukis were among those Iraqis who argued most vociferously for U.S. forces to stay past the year-end deadline for their departure prescribed by a 2008 bilateral security agreement. Officials had lobbied publicly for an extension.
Even those who are fully behind the American withdrawal fear potential problems in Kirkuk, which sits atop some of the world's biggest oil reserves.
Nearly a quarter of Iraq's oil exports come from the fields around Kirkuk. Last month the region shipped an average of 460,000 barrels per day, 22 percent of Iraq's total exports.
U.S. military officials long ago marked the city as a likely flashpoint for future conflict.
"What do we gain from America's democracy? Violence, sectarian divisions...," said Munaf Abdulla, a restaurant owner and an Arab, but added: "Kirkuk is a volatile area, vulnerable to explosion because of the problems ... over control of its fortune."
With Iraq's central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Arbil both claiming Kirkuk, a census to determine whether the city has a Kurdish or Arab majority that might have backed up one or the other's claims has been repeatedly shelved.
Arabs and Turkmen accuse Kurds of flooding the city with their kin. Kurds say dictator Saddam Hussein "Arabised" Kirkuk by encouraging Arabs to move there in the 1980s and 1990s.
While Kurdistan says it has historic rights to the city, Kirkuk is officially outside the three northern provinces that comprise the region. Iraqi security forces, and not the Kurdish peshmerga army, have the responsibility to protect it.
Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, in a visit to Kirkuk in late October, promised local politicians and residents that the city would be properly protected when U.S. troops leave.
"We will not allow for terrorists to believe that Kirkuk has become an open field," he said.
Whether Kirkuk will prove to be a time bomb depends on who you ask.
"I don't think security will be set back with the departure of the Americans from the city," said Brigadier General Samir Abdul Kareem, an Iraqi army commander. "We have been handling the city for the past four months without any problems."
Other security officials were less optimistic, however.
"I can't say we can completely control security in Kirkuk after the pullout," said Brigadier Halou Najat, a Kurdish peshmerga commander. "The success of keeping Kirkuk stable will depend on the cooperation between security forces in the city."
An experimental force of Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi army and Iraqi police, part of an effort spearheaded by the United States to get the two sides to cooperate, now helps patrol Kirkuk.
Yaseen al-Bakri, a political science professor at al-Nahrain University, said the coming withdrawal could lead to rival factions taking advantage of the confusion to achieve their own ends.
In addition to the dispute between Arbil and Baghdad over the city and its oil wealth, Kirkuk is rife with competing property claims stretching back over generations.
"It is certain that the Arab-Kurdish conflict will worsen, because after the U.S. withdraws, everyone will think it is a time to collect their spoils ... in the absence of a policeman who was able to prevent some of the parties from exceeding their bounds," Bakri said.
As in the rest of Iraq, violence in Kirkuk has dropped sharply since the sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands across the country in 2006-07. But the city continues to be plagued by insurgent attacks and kidnapping-for-ransom by militants looking for money to fund operations.
"I say with total fear for the future, we don't want the U.S. forces to walk out of Iraq, at least at this time. We don't want to see our country slip once again toward sectarian war," said government worker Ibrahim Kareem, 45, an Arab.
"I see we are moving toward a catastrophic situation. This is an explicit fact: Iraqi forces have failed to end the violence, killing and kidnapping."
"Speaking reasonably," said Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of the Kirkuk provincial council, "American forces must stay longer to train Iraqi forces ... With the current performance of the forces in Kirkuk, I can see trouble in the future in handling security."
Other residents argue the long U.S. presence in the area has made little difference, and believe Kirkuk's tensions lie less with residents or security forces than in political turf battles over control of the disputed city and its untapped riches.
"Every day we witness explosions, assassinations and kidnappings... all these events occur with the presence of U.S. forces and Iraqi ones," said Ahmed Hassan, the Turkmen owner of a car parts shop.
"We want Iraqi government to take real measures to maintain (security). This issue has nothing to do with the presence or withdrawal of American forces. I believe Iraqi stability depends on cooperation among political parties."
(Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Jim Loney)