This week, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, briefed the U.S. Congress, underlining progress in the country but also pointing out areas of concern. Continuing territorial disputes between Kurds and Arabs in the north are among the latter.
While the U.S. military is pushing a plan to get the two sides cooperating, many of Iraq's minority populations, including Christians, are caught in between, living in no man's land. Adding to their woes, al-Qaida is also targeting the territory.
Since Iraq's creation almost century ago, different rulers have tried to gerrymander the country's internal boundaries, usually favoring the majority Arab Muslims. Most recently, Saddam Hussein waged a genocidal campaign against Kurds.
Since the American invasion, the Kurds have expanded the boundaries of their federal state in the north. They say they are trying to regain land from which they were evicted.
Arabs in the north, especially in the city of Mosul, say the Kurds are taking much more territory than they lost. It's an accident of geography that many of Iraq's other minorities live in the most hotly contested seam between the Kurdish region and the city of Mosul.
Minorities Weigh Uneasy Alliances
The tiny village of Lalish is the holiest spot in the world for Yazidis, who come to worship at the fountain underneath the shrine there. Outsiders have often accused Yazidis, who number fewer than 1 million, of heresy and devil worship, according to Hazem Tahsin, son of the Yazidi prince and leader.
"After the liberation of Iraq and [the] coming of democracy to Iraq, we have great hope [for] that process and we want to be an integral part of that process," Tahsin says.
But the Yazidis are not yet sure how Iraqi democracy is going to work out for them. The Kurdistan region claims their territories, and a majority of Yazidis have aligned with the Kurdish political parties, relying on Kurdish defense forces to protect them.
Only a few towns away, in the Christian village of Tal-Qaf, the mayor is harshly critical of the same defense forces
"We want the Kurdish fighters out of here," says Bassem Bello, who accuses them of harassment and intimidation.
Bello says that free elections can never take place while the Kurdish soldiers are present. But he is at a loss to say which of the two neighboring provinces would take better care of Iraq's Christians.
Joost Hiltermann, who researches Iraq for the International Crisis Group, says they face a "terrible predicament."
"If they make a choice, it could be a fatal choice," he says.
"The plight of the minorities lies in the fact that the major groups — the Arabs and the Kurds — are vying for their loyalty, and they do that through ways nice and not so nice, if you call buying people off with money 'nice,' " Hiltermann says.
Iraq's minorities have survived over the years mostly by leaning toward the winning side. But there is no clear favorite at the moment, and a huge risk of being labeled a traitor if the wrong side prevails.
Al-Qaida Adds To Threat
What's worse, extremist groups that retain a foothold in Mosul have realized that the small communities in the borderlands are perfect targets, says U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. forces in Mosul.
"Al-Qaida is a very devious enemy. They do horrible things, like drive a truck full of thousands of pounds of explosives into a village and blow it up in the middle of the night. And most of the casualties are women and children crushed in their homes," Brown says.
In recent months, massive car bombs have targeted ethnic Turkmens, as well as religious minorities like Yazidis, Shabaks and Kakais. Brown says the bombs terrorize the populations and also push Kurds and Arabs closer to conflict.
"They want to cause finger-pointing between the Arabs and Kurds, 'Hey, it's your fault,' 'No, it's your fault.' You can look and almost analyze where are they going to go, where's a minority area," Brown says.
Even if the targets have become more predictable, it's difficult to stop the attacks with hundreds of villages to protect. Some have even taken it upon themselves to copy the U.S. military technique of bulldozing a massive earthen wall all the way around the village, leaving only a few roads by which a car bomb can enter.
A proposal to get Arabs and Kurds patrolling jointly with U.S. Army assistance seems to be gaining favor, which would at least mean Iraq's minorities would only have al-Qaida to worry about.