People celebrate to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed
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Visitors to Kirkuk in northern Iraq are greeted by an imposing statue of a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter with a gun slung over his shoulder, a reminder of tensions building in the hotly-contested city ahead of a highly-anticipated referendum on Kurdish independence. Erected in July, the statue has come to symbolize how the Kurds want to cement their hold on oil-rich Kirkuk and other parts of the region by holding next Monday's vote. The referendum is risky, especially in Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city also claimed by Arabs since oil was discovered there in the 1930s. Kirkuk, populated by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and other minorities, is one of 15 ethnically mixed areas in northern Iraq that will participate in the referendum.Clashes broke out Monday in Kirkuk after a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum drove by a Turkmen political party's office.Many Arabs have been ousted since Saddam was toppled in 2003, emboldening the Kurds to reclaim large parts of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk. Displaced Kurds were provided with incentives to return, while Kurds from other areas were also moved in, angering other minorities.
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