KIRKUK, Iraq -- A dispute over the ownership of large areas of has erupted between the Arab Shia and Sunni communities of the volatile province of Kirkuk.
Following a visit by a group of Shia religious leaders to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, nearly 5,000 dunams of land (approximately 1,200 acres) that belonged to the province's Sunni religious establishment was given to the Shia endowment.
Most of the land lies in the towns of Kirkuk and Daquq in Kirkuk province.
Kirkuk is a multiethnic, multireligious province that has been disputed between various groups for decades, especially Kurds and Arabs.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 and the breakout of sectarian conflict between the Arab Shia and Sunni factions in Iraq, the chronic conflict in Kirkuk became more complicated.
Ahmed Jamil, head of the Sunni endowment in Kirkuk, said, "We will not stay silent and will not let all that land be taken over."
He said there are legal documents that prove the Sunni endowment owns the land.
Most of the land in question is located in Kurdish areas of the province.
But Sheikh Habib Samin, head of the Shia religious endowment in Kirkuk, denies that his institution has taken over Sunni land.
"According to law No. 19 of the year 2005, we will take back any land that belonged to the Shia endowment and was occupied by the Sunni endowment," says Samin.
Jamil alleges that the Shia endowment managed to change the property deeds for the land at Kirkuk's land registration office through use of "20 cars full of armed men from Baghdad."
While the heads of both Shia and Sunni endowment offices claim to be victims of injustice, the head of Kirkuk's municipality says the real victim is "Kirkuk city itself."
"Both endowments occupy land and have turned it into places of worship for themselves," said Abdulkarim Hassan, head of Kirkuk's municipality.
Hassan added that the Shia and Sunni religious endowments have illegally built 200 mosques and seven Husseiniyas, sites of worship for Shia Muslims.
Rebwar Talabani, deputy chairman of Kirkuk Provincial Council, said the Shias took over the disputed land after the 2005 parliamentary elections which were boycotted by Sunni Arabs.
The boycott led to a marginalization of Sunni Arabs in power centers in the country.
Talabani said the lands were previously owned by the Sunni endowment.