The Kurds consider Kirkuk, population 100,000, one of the capitals of their ethnic homelands. It is also one of Iraq's leading oil producing centers, and under the U.N. oil-for-food program, Iraq's Kurds have received 13 percent of the country's oil revenues. There have been Kurdish demands for a larger percentage of the profit, and while some have raised concerns that Kurds might take over the northern oil fields upon returning to Kirkuk, they would have few avenues for exporting it independently.

On April 10, 2003, Kurdish fighters roamed unchallenged through the streets of the city. The entry into Kirkuk marked an extraordinary day for Iraqi Kurds, a moment akin to the fall of the Iron Curtain. "We are one again. Finally, we are one," said Kareem Mohammad Kareem, a Kurd who joined crowds cheering the toppling of a statue of Saddam in Arab dress. "I am 50 years old, but my life just started today."