Kemal Kirkuki: ‘An independent Kurdistan is our right.’
Two years ago Kemal Kirkuki, who commands Peshmerga forces combating the Islamic State (ISIS) at the Gwer Front in Kirkuk, volunteered to help defend his homeland when the militants began their onslaughts across the region, also threatening Kurdistan.
A former speaker of the Kurdistan Region’s parliament, Kirkuki said in an interview with Rudaw English that he sees himself as a soldier fighting in the defense of Kurdistan, not a united Iraq. “If I was told I was there to fight for the unity of Iraq I would not stay a single minute,” said the Peshmerga officer, who like most other Kurds firmly believes in Kurdistan’s right to self-determination and self-defense.
Kirkuki also expressed his wariness at some of the Sunni Arab communities from which many ISIS members have been recruited. They are the very same people who “worked for Saddam Hussein in the past, then for al-Qaeda and now they work for ISIS,” he said, adding that, “If tomorrow another gruesome group comes to the region they will work for them too.”
In his comments to Rudaw English, Kirkuki reiterated his belief that Iraq should be replaced by three separate countries – of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. If this happens, he reasoned, “We will be good neighbors and we can help each other.”
RUDAW: Do you see the fight against ISIS as a smaller part of a broader Kurdish fight for independence and statehood?
An independent Kurdistan is our right. Every nation has a right to self-determination on its own homelands. Therefore, we are working toward an independent Kurdistan, because in the past we suffered greatly. Before the First World War, Kurdistan was never a part of Iraq. North of the Hamrin Mountains and Tikrit were in Kurdistan; south of the Hamrin Mountains and Tikrit were Iraqi Arabs; east of that was Iraq Ajam. But the powerful victors of the First World War established the modern Iraqi nation state. They claimed it was good for the Kurds, Arabs, Sunni and Shiites. But it was dangerous for all of us and we suffered genocide after genocide. After America came to the region in 2003 they wanted to keep the state together through a federal system. That also failed: it was bad for us. We have been faced again with genocide recently in Shingal and they – Baghdad -- cut the Peshmerga’s salaries.
We have to make a decision about our future in an independent Kurdistan. I used to be speaker in the Kurdistan parliament, but for the last two years I have voluntarily served in the Peshmerga to fight ISIS. If I was told I was there to fight for the unity of Iraq I would not stay a single minute. We are fighting for Kurdistan.
How do you plan to defend your current frontiers after ISIS?
According to the United Nations resolutions and international law, any nation has the right to decide about its future and how to defend its territory from external threats. If Kurdistan decides not to stay with Iraq and Iraq uses force against us, we have our right of self-defense under international law.
Also, we have the Peshmerga. You see the Peshmerga are famous now all over the world. They struggle to defend Kurdistan’s people -- who are not only Kurdish but also Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Yezidis, everyone -- regardless of their religious backgrounds and beliefs.
What is the situation now south of Kirkuk?
Take Bashir as an example: It hasn’t been liberated from ISIS because the coalition will not give air support to the Hashd al-Shaabi (Shiite militia). Consequently, until now Bashir is under ISIS’s control, because Iraq’s air force is not in a position to provide very adequate air support.
Furthermore, the Hashd cannot carry out these offensives alone. They tried many times but they failed. Now, we have to work together, the Peshmerga with the coalition and the Iraqi Army, not Hashd. Then, we can liberate Bashir. But after we made the decision to do that, Hashd demonstrated against it, saying that they oppose coordination with the Americans, Kurds and the Iraqi Army. But we can liberate it without them.
Why do you think Baghdad opposes the trenches the Peshmerga have dug on the frontlines against ISIS in Kirkuk?
That shouldn’t be a problem between us and Iraq. These trenches are to save Peshmerga lives, civilian lives and villages, oil installations, power stations and water dams from ISIS attacks. Our frontier with Iraq is the Hamrin Mountains. When we arrived there, we set up defensive positions and would not allow anyone to pass there without our authorization, especially ISIS.
The Iraqi Air Force attacked me in my sector three times. They have bombed the Peshmerga base west of Kirkuk. The fourth time they went to attack us we fired on them and they backed off. We informed the coalition, but Baghdad claimed it wasn’t their airplane.
Will a future Kurdish state border a Sunni region or an Iraqi region?
You know ISIS did not come from the sky. They are Sunnis, many who attack our front are from Hawija. They worked for Saddam Hussein in the past, then for al-Qaeda and now they work for ISIS. If tomorrow another gruesome group comes to the region they will work for them too. Therefore, it is a big mistake for Baghdad to arm the Iraqi Sunni tribes in that region, because they are not well organized. Some of them are working for ISIS, others for Baghdad, some with us and others working just for money. The Arab tribal leaders also cannot control the tribes, so if they arm them instability and violence will continue.
We hope Iraq becomes three independent countries: Kurdistan, Shiitestan and Sunnistan. We will be good neighbors and we can help each other. We faced five genocides as part of Iraq; the state is no longer viable. If we continue to stay together it will mean no security, nor stability. Iraq cannot control its borders, cannot control its land or economy. Therefore, it’s better if the Shiite stay in their home, Sunnis stay in their home and we stay in ours. We can work together much better that way.
Might the Peshmerga force ISIS from Hawija?
We are planning for future operations against the group, but of course I am not going to talk about the details. We have a good plan. We know what we are going to do and we are sure ISIS has no chance of staying in Kurdistan. We hope the Iraqi Army offensive against ISIS in Makhmour will succeed. We inform them if we become aware of any ISIS attempts to attack their positions.
You have talked about ISIS infiltrating the region among the Internally Displaced Persons IDPs). Does ISIS pose a significant sleeper cell threat?
Many of them have entered our territory with displaced civilians. We have arrested more than 50 people who are working for ISIS. Sometimes they even concealed TNT inside soap. They have contacts in the cities with other sleeper cells. We arrested some of them -- two days ago in my sector we arrested one. We’ve also killed other cell members trying to launch attacks against our forces recently.