Interesting piece in today’s LA Times about the struggle for Kirkuk, the oil-rich town in northern Iraq. American officials, regional leaders and residents are increasingly worried that the town could develop into a third front in the country’s civil war.

All the different ethnic groups in the region – the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are all vying for control of this city and the region. At stake are land, water and of course, some of Iraq’s richest oil reserves.Everyone appears to be preparing for war, even though no one says they want it. “They are right when they call it a time bomb”, argues Sheik Abdul Rahman Obeidi, a prominent Sunni Arab leader in Kirkuk. “We will not leave, and we will not let anyone take Kirkuk. We are ready to fight. We hope we won’t have to, but we’re ready.”

Kurdish leaders, in turn, warn that they will take the city by law or by force. “People don’t have any more patience,” said Kurdish Councilman Rebwar Faiq Talabani, sitting in Kirkuk’s heavily fortified provincial council building. “They are telling the government, ‘If you can’t get our rights back, we’ll do it by ourselves.’ “

Neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Iran, fear that if the Kurds do gain control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region would have the confidence and economic power based on oil to move toward independence. Against this backdrop of ethnic, political and regional tensions, Iraq’s new constitution mandates that a referendum on control of Kirkuk be held by the end of this year. If the vote goes ahead as scheduled, most analysts expect the Kurds to win.

If that happens the whole region could be destabalised, as Turkey for one, would not support it…