As violence between once-dominant Sunni and majority Shi'ite Arabs subsides, many fear the greatest threat to Iraq's stability now lies along the "green line" demarcating Kurdistan.
Kirkuk is historically Kurdish, but under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-led regime, Kurds were forced out and the city was repopulated with Arabs due to the territory having 4 percent of the world's oil wealth. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurds began moving back and displacing Arabs after Kurds gained control of the provincial government.
Despite this, Iraq's central government formally controls Kirkuk. Kurdish regional governments, however, argue that the territory historically belongs to Kurdistan, Iraq's semi-independent northern region.
The Kurdistan regional government has been lobbying for a referendum to allow Kirkuk residents to decide whether they become part of the northern region. But this has been repeatedly postponed since Turkmen and Arabs leaders of Kirkuk fear becoming second-class citizens.
Tension has thus always existed. However the constant postponing of the Kurdistan regional government’s requests has created increased tensions between the two sides over the last few months. Ten people died in a bomb attack last week, as Maliki takes steps to boost the Iraqi Army's presence there, alarming Kurdish Peshmerga troops.
The U.S. military has also made the decision to double its troop presence in Kirkuk earlier this year. Soldiers there now focus on brokering communication between rival groups.
All of this is making it more difficult to find a consensus on Kirkuk, drawing neighbouring Turkey and Iran into the conflict as well.
In response to these developments, a special U.N. task force – The International Crisis Group – produced a report which argues for a resolution over the bitter dispute over oil-rich Kirkuk. This includes preserving the city's territorial integrity and sharing control between the Kurds and Arabs who lay claim to it.
The document contains four options for possibly resolving the Kirkuk issue, as well as recommendations for ending disagreements over 14 other contested areas in northern Iraq.
All the Kirkuk options involve political compromise and power sharing, the U.N. statement said. All four options also treat Kirkuk as a single entity and don't include plans for splitting the territory, the statement added. Kirkuk would thusly be governed jointly by both authorities.
This presents a brilliant opportunity for dialogue. But Arabs and minority Turkmen and Kurds view one another suspiciously after decades of bloodshed, political manoeuvring and hardship. The Kurds have therefore created a firm and unwavering belief amongst themselves that the territory is rightly there’s and that no one else should share it.
However the 450-page report from the UN calls for the disputed territory of Kirkuk to be either shared on an equal basis, or allow it to become a semi-autonomous region with an increase for potential sectarian flashpoints between Arabs and Kurds.
Although Kurds say that Kirkuk is their ancestral capital, the allure of the area's oil reserves to both sides cannot be overestimated. It is thought to have a production capacity of about 1m barrels a day.
A U.N. official, who asked to go unnamed, said that de Mistura had already briefed Talabani, Maliki, and Barzani and that their initial response had been "broadly positive." The response from the Kurds will have been somewhat different.
With the UN's American-ifluenced involvement in Iran over the last decade being somewhat controversal, its surprising that the UN is involving itself in this way. One might argue that this is the UN's way of healing old wounds.We shall wait to see how this unfolds.