In this interview with Rudaw English Governor of Kirkuk Dr. Najmaldin Karim discusses the current situation in his Governorate where he outlines the various problems it is presently facing, from the drop in oil prices, the inflow of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) from Iraq to the eternal terror threat posed by Islamic State (ISIS).
Under his leadership Kirkuk has tried to enhanced security by building trenches around the city and reduce the threat posed by terrorist car bombs. “I think the whole world understands that we're dealing with a vicious enemy,” says governor Karim.
The governor is thankful for US air support but believes it should be done with greater support to the Kurds fighting on the ground. “I think we all know that airstrikes alone are not going to do anything without being done in coordination with ground forces. Without such coordination ISIS could well hold onto a lot of areas, including parts of Iraq and Syria which are economically very viable and important,” the governor warned.
“Their [ISIS's] biggest losses in Iraq has been in Kirkuk because of the Peshmerga,” he added.
In regard to the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil over oil exports Karim hoped they would reach an agreement to solve the dispute. Rather than governing a city in the middle of a Baghdad-Erbil dispute he wants his city “to be a bridge between them.”
On the prospect of a referendum on independence Karim is adamant that “the Kurds have every right to have a referendum,” and “have every right to become independent if the people want it.” He also stressed that such a “referendum should also include Kirkuk.”
Kirkuk, like the rest of Iraq including the Kurdistan Region, has been affected by the drop in the price of oil and the war against ISIS.
RUDAW: Kirkuk has seen quite a lot of new construction projects and development in recent years. Has the war against ISIS set much of this back?
DR. NAJMALDIN KARIM: Kirkuk, like the rest of Iraq including the Kurdistan Region, has been affected by the drop in the price of oil and the war against ISIS. Meaning everything we have been doing has come to a standstill because there isn't any money to fund these programs. So unfortunately since 2014 there was no budget voted upon by the Iraqi government so there was no money coming in. All of 2015 we had the war against ISIS coupled with the drop in oil prices. We hope 2016 will be better. We are desperate for funding.
We have a lot of projects including services in the neighborhoods, we have a lot of schools which remain unfinished. Hospitals which are finished but not yet equipped because we don't have the money for that. In addition to that we have the burden of almost 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons in our city. The western part of our province has been occupied by ISIS. A lot of homes have been destroyed in the fighting. Unfortunately the Peshmerga are often accused of doing that: I don't say the Peshmerga hasn't done any of that but remember it's a war. Air strikes and booby trapped homes contribute to the destruction in these areas. They will all need to be reconstructed. All the water projects electricity projects in those places are gone, hospitals, clinics, schools have all been destroyed.
You have said in the past that if Kirkuk is annexed to the Kurdistan Region it will need a special status. What do you mean by this?
all the people of Kirkuk need to buy into the idea of Kurdistan.
Well first of all the people of Kirkuk need to buy into the idea of Kurdistan. That means we have to have a respectable percentage of the Arab population, Turkmen population of Kirkuk in addition to, of course, the Kurds to want to do that because eventually the people of Kirkuk have to vote on this. But for this to happen, to reassure the Arabs, to reassure the Turkmen and whoever else actually for that matter there are some steps that need to be taken by the Kurdistan Region. Some laws will have to be passed in the Kurdistan Parliament, hopefully whenever it gets back to work, to show the right of the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Kirkuk as a whole will have a special status and autonomy within the Kurdistan Region. It will not be like Erbil, Duhok or Sulaimani which is homogenous and all Kurdish. This would include having their own police, control over their own finances and then also it should have provisions for the representation and participation of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs alike for the presidency of Kurdistan, council of ministers, parliament in accordance with their population. It should also seek to ensure that there will be education in Arabic, in Turkmen language in accordance with the Iraqi constitution. That way I think once Arabs and Turkmen see this then I think they will be more likely to vote for Kirkuk to become a part of the Kurdistan Region.
Why do you think some people oppose the trenches that are being dug on the front-lines near here?
I think it's out of ignorance. You know they are building a trench around the city of Baghdad. Even the Prophet Muhammed, when he was fighting the enemies of Islam at that time, built a trench in what was called the Battle of the Trench. If you go back to the history of warfare more generally and study it you will see every country and army wants to protect itself. That's really what it boils down to.
I think it's ignorance and some of it is racial. Anything the Kurds do these people oppose. But I think the whole world understands that we're dealing with a vicious enemy. You know how they send their explosives with vehicles against us, so we have to protect ourselves.
Car bombs used to be very common in Kirkuk up until recent years, why have the number of such bombings markedly decreased?
We used to have 2-3 car bombings in Kirkuk every week. We don't anymore.
Having the trenches, having the Peshmerga: You know we built the first trench in 2013 around the city of Kirkuk. The length of that trench was 58km, three meters wide, two meters deep. The barrier, the dirt dug out was used as a barrier to prevent these cars from coming. That's really the reason we don't have many car bombs anymore. You're right, we used to have 2-3 car bombings in Kirkuk every week. We don't anymore.
Are you getting any payment for the oil exported from Kirkuk?
Until June of 2015 all the money made from Kirkuk's oil, even the ones exported from pipelines in the Kurdistan Region, was given to Baghdad. Since June 2015 until now the KRG has been exporting oil and selling it independently. We in Kirkuk therefore expect to get our share of the petrodollars, they have given us a dollar per barrel. I think in the Iraqi budget it's $2 a barrel, but we really haven't received anything from Baghdad since 2014 and most of 2015. Only a very small percentage. So this is a good start. To make it clear, even though Kurdistan Regional Government has been exporting and producing oil from June of last year until now, even with Baghdad we wouldn't be getting 2015's payments in 2015. We’ll get it in 2016. In arrears.
Does it matter to you whether Kirkuk’s oil is exported by the central government or independently by Erbil provided Kirkuk gets the money it needs to cover its expenses?
We just want our expenses covered. We hope Baghdad and Erbil reach an agreement because they need each other. This oil that is being exported, according to the constitution, is for all of Iraq's people, it belongs to them. So I hope they reach an agreement. It's not just the petrodollars, we have to fund projects, pay salaries and so forth. We don't want get in between a dispute between them, on the contrary we want to be a bridge between them.
We hope Baghdad and Erbil reach an agreement because they need each other.
Has America's understanding of the Kurds and their struggle changed since you sought to raise awareness of the Anfal genocide back in the 1980's?
In those years really nobody knew the Kurds. The Kurds are known all over the world now. Even with that though we see there is still a lot of anxiety amongst the Kurds with regard to the commitment of the western countries to the Kurdish struggle. We saw that in Geneva in the last few days when the PYD was not invited. And they are the most effective force against ISIS and they have an administration that is working despite the difficulties. It has Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen fighting side-by-side against ISIS. I was happy to see Ambassador McGurk go to Kobani and meet with them and go to Qamishlo and meet with them. That's good and I hope they keep it up.
This is in stark contrast to the years you referred to. Then we used to try and get the attention of Congress. Sometimes through friends and even sometimes through patients of mine who knew someone with contacts there. Completely different time. Now look at the election process in the U.S., everyone is competing to see who can support the Kurds more. I hope this continues but we need consistent political support. Not just ad-hoc support now given the fact we're needed to fight ISIS on the ground.
You critiqued the then Clinton administration’s attempt to contain Saddam Hussein using pinprick air strikes, pointing out that, in your professional opinion as a physician, one doesn't die by bleeding from a pinprick. Do you see echoes of that policy in today’s air campaign against ISIS?
I think this is a little more than pinprick, it's more like a wide-bore needle so it hurts more. These airstrikes are effective. We would like them to be more frequent. I think they have helped Peshmerga significantly, have helped the Iraqis in Ramadi. They are a great help to the YPG forces in Syria. Even though you hear a lot of talk about the need for “boots on the ground”.
I lived in the U.S. for a long time and have seen precedents. While the Americans may say now that they'd like to have troops fighting ISIS that sentiment isn't going to last long. They will come out against it soon thereafter. This happened in Vietnam, war in Afghanistan. So the current strategy is a prudent one for them. What it is lacking however is more training for the Peshmerga, more training for the YPG and more weapons to be able to defend themselves. Same applies for the Iraqi Army.
Now look at the election process in the U.S., everyone is competing to see who can support the Kurds more. I hope this continues but we need consistent political support.
Regarding Iraqi Kurdistan I think we all know that airstrikes alone is not going to do anything without being done in coordination with ground forces. Without such coordination ISIS could well hold onto a lot of areas, including parts of Iraq and Syria which are economically very viable and important. Look at how many times they have attacked Kirkuk and tried to take it. Their biggest losses in Iraq has been in Kirkuk actually because of the Peshmerga.
Politically the western support, including the United States, has to transcend from just helping the Kurds against ISIS to include political support for their aspirations. That's very important.
What role should Iran play in Kirkuk's future?
Iran has been very helpful in the war against ISIS. I'm glad they're included in these Syria talks. After the nuclear agreement I think cooperation could be increased. When ISIS threatened Erbil in August 2014 Iran, according to President Barzani, was the first to help. Iran is an important neighbour to Iraq. Good relations between Iraq and Iran are important just as good relations between Iraq and Turkey are important. These good relations should be predicated on Ankara and Tehran respecting Iraqi sovereignty and not interfering in the country's internal affairs.
Do you think the Shiite militias will come to terms with Kirkuk becoming a part of the Kurdistan Region?
We really don't have any problem with Shia militias in Kirkuk. Kirkuk is protected by Peshmerga. The Turkmen Shia of Kirkuk in Taza and in Bashir are being helped by the Peshmerga. So we don't have that issue here.
Also given the fact that Kirkuk is not part of the Kurdistan Region now we don't have a problem. But if it comes to a vote the will of the people will have to be respected. Article 140 clearly states a referendum will be held to determine Kirkuk's status so it's not up to any particular political party or any militia force to object to it. It's the constitution, it's the law of the land.
Is now the right time to hold a referendum on independence?
The Kurds have long tried to work with the central government in Baghdad. In the 1970s with Saddam Hussein, in 1991 with him again when he was really weak. But they wouldn't come forward to solve the Kurdish issue. Again in 2003 the Kurds went to Baghdad, President Talabani, President Barzani, Kurdish delegations participating in the government, parliament and everything. But there is a deeply engrained mentality there I think. Even though the constitution says a federal Iraq and delegation of authorities.
Article 140 clearly states a referendum will be held to determine Kirkuk's status so it's not up to any particular political party or any militia force to object to it.
I'm telling you from experience. I'm Governor of Kirkuk, there is a law passed by the Iraqi parliament, approved by the president to transfer the authorities of eight ministries into the governorates and they're still not doing that. This has nothing to do even with the Kurds. This has to do with improving the administration and removing the bureaucracy to help get things done more efficiency. Same applies to the Kurdistan region, some people just can't see how the Kurds should be received by world leaders. Or world leaders when they come and visit Erbil and meet with Kurdish leadership.
I think there is no such thing as a 'wrong' time for a referendum. The Kurds have every right to have a referendum, they have every right to become independent if the people want it. Remember, as Masoud Barzani pointed out, having a referendum doesn't mean that we will have an independent Kurdistan right away. But my opinion, if we're going to have a referendum and there is a strong vote for independence some steps should be taken. At the very least I think we should declare sovereignty in the areas that are under Peshmerga and Kurdish administration. I think that referendum should also include Kirkuk.
Will the One Iraq policy ever be practical?
Well I think One Iraq policy will only work if there is true federalism in Iraq. If regions are allowed to be formed in addition to KRG. Whether we like it or not we don't have a unified Iraq now. We have Kurdistan basically doing its own thing. The economic problems in Kurdistan don't mean Erbil will give up everything and be like Basra or Karbala or something like that. And they shouldn't actually. The Sunnis, if we don't allow them to form their region with their own police force and counter-terror paramilitaries I think even if Daesh (ISIS) is gone something else will come. Remember only a few years back we have al-Qaeda. Now we have ISIS. Tomorrow probably something will come out and take both names and the same thing continues.
If there is true understanding of federalism I think Iraq can stay as one unit, but without that Iraq will split apart. Hopefully peacefully, but it could be very bloody.