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ARLINGTON, Va. — Shiites are starting to move into the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, jockeying for position alongside the Kurds and Sunnis who have been on the verge of open war over the oil-rich prize since Saddam’s ouster, according to a U.S. commander in charge of the city’s security.

Both private Shiite citizens and representatives of Shiite militias, including the powerful and quasi-official Badr Corps, “are coming in bits and pieces,” Army Col. David Gray, commander of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, told Pentagon reporters during a live briefing from Iraq.

“It’s all part of the game to figure out who is going to control Kirkuk in the future,” Gray said Friday.

The Badr Corps consists of former Iraqi officers and soldiers who defected from the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They remain active despite U.S. calls that the militia disband.

There are no official reports of the Shiite influx, just observations and reports from the local population, “the Iraqi army and Iraqi police patrols in this area, and our own patrols,” Gray said.

Gray estimated the numbers of Shiites coming into the city to be “in the hundreds.”

The Shiite’s moves “are something we’re monitoring,” Gray said, because “it adds to an already ethnically diverse population.”

For the time being, however, the city is relatively calm, he said.

“The presence of coalition forces, together with increasingly competent and confident Iraqi army brigade and Iraqi police force … are keeping a lid on potential violence inside Kirkuk,” Gray said.

Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s most strategically significant cities, because it sits on the country’s single largest oil field, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s fact book on the country. Most of Iraq’s oil fields are in the south.

Kirkuk is also historically one of Iraq’s most ethnically mixed cities, with Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Assyrians making up the major groups.

Anxious to control the city’s oil, Saddam forced out the Kurds and Turkmen who had mostly populated Kirkuk since the British occupation of Iraq and moved in Sunnis, in a campaign the former dictator dubbed “Arabization” of the region.

After Saddam’s fall, many Kurds believed that they should be rewarded for fighting alongside U.S. forces during the invasion by being allowed to return to the homes they had lost in Kirkuk and reclaim the city as part of an independent Kurdistan.

Sunnis living in Kirkuk objected to that plan.

Fearing bloodshed, U.S. officials have kept a precarious peace between the factions, counseling patience until Iraq had a government in place to decide the matter of who should “own” Kirkuk — and its precious oil.

The constitution approved by Iraqi voters last year includes a provision that calls for a census of Kirkuk’s population before the government decides which population has a majority in the city.

Now, with the Shiites starting to move into Kirkuk, a new element has been added to a mission for the 101st that Gray likened to “an amalgamation of a knife fight, a gunfight, and a three-dimensional chess game.”

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