Rudaw correspondent Ranj Sangawi sat down with Kirkuk Governor Najmadin Karim. The veteran Kurdish official answered an array of questions about the raising of the Kurdistan flag over provincial buildings in Kirkuk and the reactions by local Turkmens, Arabs and Christians, as well as officials from Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region, Turkey and the United States. Additionally Governor Karim spoke about Article 140, a referendum, and Kirkuk's role in those processes. Karim also recalled former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s actions with the Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk.
Rudaw: How was the decision to raise Kurdistan’s flag made? Did you have prior discussions or consultations in the governorate or provincial council with the Arab, Turkmen and Christian parties, or it was a unilateral decision?
Governor Najmadin Karim:
No, it wasn’t unilateral. Before that, I will just talk about one by one, met with the Brothers List, which besides Kurds includes Arab, Turkmen, Chaldean and Assyrians – comprising two Turkmen, two Arab and three Chaldean and Assyrian members. In addition, we also talked to the Turkmen who have a list in Iraqi Turkmen Front, even to the Turkmen working independently outside the list. The Arab parties came to us and we talked to them. We also talked to people outside parties and political organizations, who are the majority among the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. We talked to them. This wasn’t done alone. The subject was also discussed with Kurdish parties in Kirkuk.
What are other parties concerned about? According to Rudaw reports, people from all social backgrounds were happy about the things you have done as governor to this city. Did you expect other ethnic groups, especially the Turkmen, to object and protest this decision? Do the protests of some of the provincial council members represent the public opinion of Turkmen, Arabs and Christians?
No, it doesn’t represent the opinion of all. We know that there are different sects among Turkmen in Kirkuk. And the whole world knows how dispersed the Arabs, especially Sunnis, are in terms of politics. They haven’t yet been able to determine a leadership to represent them. We have met with the Turkmen. Less than 100 had staged the protests. It wouldn’t have been like this if the opinion
After all, Kurdistan’s flag has been here since 2003. So, the Kurdistan flag is not a new thing.
of the Turkmen population was supportive of them. And the day before the voting in the provincial council, the Turkmen Front asked Turkmen not to go to work, school and university. But people didn’t listen to them. Turkmen people and the indigenous Arabs know that they are partners with the Kurds in this city. Turkmen, Arab, Kurdish people, Chaldeans and Assyrians want to live happy. They want their lives to be protected. They don’t want to be assaulted at work or at home. That is what they want. And when you say that they supported us before, it was because we treated them all equally, we have served all parties without difference and we have been continuing in this kind of work and service and we will continue in the future.
So the public opinion of the Turkmen and other social makeup supports your decision?
I think, according to the negotiations we’ve had with the Turkmen and Arab people, even those who speak publicly on TV being motivated by a party or some other place, say they don’t have a problem with flag of Kurdistan when they meet with us.
So they want Kirkuk to be returned to Kurdistan?
I don’t know whether or not they like this. But if we present them a good model, I am sure they will like it because they know now that they have stayed and are protected in Kirkuk is because of the forces of Kurdistan who are here, ranging from the Peshmerga,
I have respect for the Iraqi prime minister. He can file a lawsuit against us in the federal court if he thinks the matter is unconstitutional.
Asayesh, assisted with the police which includes all parties. Had it not been due to these forces, Kirkuk would be like Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and Haweja. After all, Kurdistan’s flag has been here since 2003. So, the Kurdistan flag is not a new thing. Ahmet Davutoğlu [the former prime minister of Turkey] passed out Kurdistan flags when he came to Kirkuk, beginning from Erbil, through Pirde until he arrived in here. Besides, there was Kurdistan flag on the citadel, and he had visited there. Kurdistan flag is not a new thing. This has been exaggerated.
Did the march you led to raise the Kurdistan flag help exaggerate the matter?
We didn’t have any marches. If you look at your archives, we have every year been raising the Kurdistan flag on the citadel. It was raised in most places. But we wanted to make it official such that the provincial council votes on it. We had a look at the constitution and consulted constitutional experts; there is no article in the constitution barring us from raising a second flag.
The Iraqi Prime Minister says that it is unconstitutional, and he says in an interview with Rudaw that the governor of Kirkuk should represent all the social makeup of the city. Has Haider al-Abadi as Prime Minister of Iraq been representing all the social makeup of Iraq? Has been impartial in dealing with the problems of Iraq?
The Prime Minister of Iraq surely has a difficult task. He became prime minister in difficult conditions. I have respect for the Iraqi prime minister. He can file a lawsuit against us in the federal court if he thinks the matter is unconstitutional. There is no need to exaggerate the matter this much on the part of some parties who regard themselves to represent the Turkmen or Arab population in Kirkuk. There are constitutional and legal ways through which they can make their voices heard. Regarding the question whether he has been treating them equally, I am not in a position to answer this question. Rather, we should ask the Sunnis, the Daa’wa Party, the Sadrists and Badir group to see whether he represents and treats them all equally. These are the ones to answer the question.
Does your raising of the Kurdistan flag mean not representing the whole social makeup of Kirkuk?
First of all, the Iraqi flag is there in its position, and we have been respecting the Iraqi flag. If you noticed, we first raised the Iraqi flag then the flag of Kurdistan. The Kurdistan flag exists in Kurdistan. The flag of Kurdistan is not the flag of the region. It is the flag of the people of Kurdistan, people living in Kurdistan. The same Turkmen and Arab social makeup exists there too, even more of them live
We certainly are against the position that argues only the Kurds should have power, no one else exists and no one else should have power in Kirkuk.
there. The same flag flies in Erbil and Sulaimani where all the social makeup lives. Regarding the remark that I should serve them all, I have proved that I have been serving all the social makeup of Kirkuk. And the best proof and example for this is the 2014 elections in which we won the votes of many Arab and Turkmen people.
You know that Turkey has influence over Kirkuk due to the Turkmen living in the city. What do you think of the strong statements issued by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
I haven’t heard his words directly. But from what I have heard, we have always in Kirkuk to which Mam Jalal, Mr Masoud and other Kurdish political leaders have come and stressed that Kirkuk is not a purely Kurdish city. Rather, there is Arab, Turkmen and Christian social makeup in Kirkuk. We all know this. We know that there Sunnis, Shiites and Sabehas in Kirkuk. It has all the social makeup that exists in Iraq. We certainly are against the position that argues only the Kurds should have power, no one else exists and no one else should have power in Kirkuk.
Erdogan says: The Kurdistan flag should be lowered in Kirkuk which is the city of Turkmen, Arabs and the Kurds, if there are Kurds in the city. Do you think there is some kind of misunderstanding on the part of Turkey regarding this decision and the social makeup of Kirkuk?
I hope, as you know, there is going to be a referendum in Turkey. This referendum has put a lot of pressure on the AK party there. It has many problems with Turkey and even Russia with which people thought have reconciled. What they looked to happen with Trump hasn’t happened yet. There are problems inside Turkey. There are extreme parties which accuse the president and his party of being soft on the question of Kurds. Before the subject of raising the Kurdistan flag was voted in the provincial council, the MHP especially its leader Bahçeli is an ally of the AKP for these matters.
They were even against the raising of the Kurdistan flag there when the Kurdistan Regional president went there. This was at a time when the subject of raising the Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk was non-existent. We know there is pressure there. But we reiterate have always
...what you hear from three to four people in the parliament is no way the opinion of Arab and Turkmen population in Kirkuk.
stressed, and the Turkmen people know this very well, that Kirkuk is a city where different nations, sects and religion exist. If you saw the exhibition which was opened today in Kirkuk, there were different Turkish and Arab shops and corporations. There were many Turkmen people there, especially people from Kirkuk Business Chamber who are indigenous Turkmen of this city, were there. You would see how their dealings were. People characterize what is inside Kirkuk. After all, Kirkuk and Iraq will be a lot better and more peaceful if these problems are resolved within Iraq.
What do you mean by indigenous Turkmen? Do you think people protesting the flying of Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk are under the influence of Arab and Turkmen IDPs?
There is a small number of Turkmen IDPs who had come from Tal Afar which was invaded. But there are many Arab IDPs who have come from other provinces which are now liberated. But they are not allowed to go back to these provinces. The person who regards himself as their representative in the Iraqi parliament has never come to visit these people who live in tents. These IDPs know very
They said that the Peshmerga have protected us. They were therefore taken to be traitors.
well that these people are against Kirkuk administration, its provincial council and its people, that they are not loyal to their own people who are in great need, living in bad conditions. Imagine losing your home, property and everything and become a refugee living in a tent. It should be hard.
Do you intend to hold broad meetings with the entire city’s social makeup to explain political matters, and on the future of Kirkuk?
Yes, we have been doing this and will continue. After the raising of the flag, Turkmen and Arab parties have visited us, and we have talked about these matters. And we will continue and even broaden these discussions.
So, the public opinion is the opposite of the words we hear from some political parties?
I can reassure you and all your viewers that what you hear from three to four people in the parliament is no way the opinion of Arab and Turkmen population in Kirkuk.
The Turkish president asked for the lowering of the flag in Kirkuk. Do you think relations between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey will turn sour over this matter, or these relations are stronger now?
I hope these relations become stronger to the extent that a political matter cannot ruin them. This is the decision of Kirkuk’s provincial council. It is not even a decision made by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is true that the KRG has supported the decision. But this is not a decision they have made. This is the decision of Kirkuk’s provincial council. And according to the constitution, Kirkuk’s provincial council is entitled to make such a decision.
You said that you hope that the relations will not be damaged. But what do you predict?
I predict that these relations will continue. These relations are based on the interests of both the Kurdistan Region and Turkey. It is not something given to the Kurdistan Region. Rather, they are in the interests of both parties. The Kurdistan Region is currently a peaceful place, bordering with Turkey. And this border is well protected against bad things against this country. Hence, I think it is in the interests of both parties. After all, Turkish companies and investors have done a lot of work in the Kurdistan Region. The business exchanges between the two have been more than many of the countries Turkey is dealing with.
You said that the public opinion of Kirkuk’s different social makeup including some politicians behind the scenes is different. What do you think can resolve this? Referendum?
I certainly think the only way is for people to be able to express their opinion freely. If there is someone publicly saying that they support the Kurdistan flag, then that person is being perceived as a traitor. One or two members from the provincial council distanced themselves from these policies, and they are not associated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
[Turkmen] should play important roles, and should have representatives in the region’s presidency and in Kurdistan’s parliament.
(PUK) or the Gorran party, were regarded as traitors. They were even threatened by death. They said that they had betrayed the Turkmen. It was because these people didn’t criticize the Peshmerga. They said that the Peshmerga have protected us. They were therefore taken to be traitors. Because they didn’t support a candidate put forward by the Turkmen Front for the presidency of provincial council. That is why they were regarded as traitors.
I think holding a referendum is an important part of Article 140 which should be implemented as soon as possible, and a referendum be held. And I hope the Kurdistan Region explains how it deals with Kirkuk once its return to the Kurdistan Region is voted on, and also explain the role of the Turkmen in the presidency of the region and in the Kurdistan’s parliament, how they will be electing their members.
What do you think the role of Turkmen should be?
I think they should play important roles, and should have representatives in the region’s presidency and in Kurdistan’s parliament.
So whoever lives under the Kurdish administration should be entitled to enjoy democratic freedoms?
It should be the same for the Arabs, too. Kirkuk is different from Duhok, Sulaimani, Halabja and Erbil. Kirkuk is different in terms of social makeup. That is why it should be treated differently in this region, and shouldn’t be treated in terms of administration the same as others.
You had in the past proposed that Kirkuk should be an independent region and then be returned to the Kurdistan Region. If this was adopted, would it have been easier, would these problems happen?
I think this should be asked to the people of Kirkuk. They should be given a choice to see which one they deem to be better. Kirkuk should be close to the Kurdistan Region whether it will be returned to the region in a year, two or three in order to protect the city and all its social makeup, and this should be decided by the people of Kirkuk.
We talked about Turkey’s threats. But Iran too indirectly talks about this in its papers like Itimad and Ettela’at newspapers. How do you assess Iran’s attitude on this matter?
Iran knows better than anyone that the Kurdistan flag was everywhere. They have met with the Peshmerga, they have come to Kirkuk, visiting Peshmerga commanders, and they see Kurdistan flag in these places. And I talk about Kirkuk, not Sulaimani or Erbil. They have been under some pressure to also voice its opinion on this matter. Iraq, Kurdistan and every other place will be better off if there are no external interventions.
There is regional pressure on you as governor of Kirkuk. How do you feel in terms of personal peace of mind?
I am comfortable with my feelings and conscience. And I, in no way, feel that we are discriminating between nations. And we have been continuing these policies since the first day I came to Kirkuk. The question of the flag has been exaggerated. This is the will of the majority of the people of Kirkuk.
Will this flag be the cause of peace and security for Kirkuk’s social makeup?
Look at the Kurdistan Region. There are no Christians in Basra and Baghdad and we know what happened to them in Mosul. We know what happened to Turkmen in Tal Afar and where these people are now. Look at the Turkmen living in Kirkuk. They are busy with their work. The tears shed by some people for the Turkmen are just crocodile tears. In 1990, the Iraqi Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz was in
The ministerial council bureau has instructed that Article 140 be implemented, and the referendum is part of this.
Ankara. He was holding a news conference with the Turkish foreign minister. When Tareq Aziz was asked about Turkmen, his answer what that there were no Turkmen in Iraq. And the Turkish foreign minister had no comments on this.
What do you make of Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani remarks on the response of Turkey?
I saw part of it. His answers were good, especially his remark that there is a significant number of Turkmen and Arab people in Kirkuk despite the Kurds being the majority. Looking back 30 to 35 years ago, touring its neighborhoods, the city was a Kurdish-Turkmen city.
The Sunnis’ big problem is that they don’t have a leadership to speak on their behalf.
There were a small number of Arabs living in the city, we can even pinpoint the places and alleys where they were living.
What do you have to say to all of Kirkuk’s social makeup? What will be the future of the city? What will your reaction be if the federal government doesn’t approve holding a referendum here or doesn’t implement Article 140? What will happen to Kirkuk? People are afraid that there will be economic or financial embargo imposed on them, cutting salaries of the city’s employees? What do you think will happen? And what do you have to say to these concerns?
I don’t predict bad things to happen to Kirkuk. I am by nature optimistic in these matters. I don’t think we have done something to justify the cutting of peoples’ salaries. Many of these employees are paid by the Kurdistan Region. Fifteen percent of those getting paid by Baghdad are Kurds. I don’t think it reaches this point. But we surely will have the ability to run the city. Our people are prepared to sacrifice for national matters, and support these decisions. Living conditions of the people of Kirkuk are better than many other
We made a decision supported by Mam Jalal, when he was healthy, the KRG and especially the people of Kurdistan to prevent the Iraqi army from entering Kirkuk
provinces despite the city’s currently hosting more than half a million IDPs. Holding a referendum is just part of Article 140. There is a delegation in Baghdad who has met with the prime minister there. The ministerial council bureau has instructed that Article 140 be implemented, and the referendum is part of this.
Are you in favor of holding the referendum before or after Haweja is recaptured?
It is better for people to be in their own places and stabilize and then do these things. I hope the recapture of Haweja takes no more than six months. Until then, there won’t be any election or referendum.
What do you have to say to the people of Kurdistan on the question of the flag?
This flag has been here since 2003, and we are all committed to implement the decision made by the provincial council. The flag is there and will stay there.
The Iraqi army left Kirkuk and its people when ISIS overran Haweja in 2014. Is this attitude a permanent danger to you? How much can you depend on the Iraqi army?
It is the Peshmerga that protects the majority of Kirkuk. Before 2014, there were explosions, car bombs in Kirkuk. These activities are almost non-existent since the Peshmerga came here. These terrorist activities were claiming the lives of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen
In general, the U.S. in in favor of settling the question of Kirkuk and other disputed areas through the constitution
people. They targeted churches, mosques and all these places. Nowadays, the Iraqi army is in no way present in Kirkuk. The Iraqi army should retake Haweja in cooperation with the Peshmerga or other forces. Haweja might need the Iraqi army. But places being protected currently by the Peshmerga do not need the Iraqi army.
Do you think there will be confrontation among Kirkuk’s social makeup over not lowering the flag?
No, it will not cause this. We made a decision supported by Mam Jalal, when he was healthy, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and especially the people of Kurdistan to prevent the Iraqi army from entering Kirkuk, which would otherwise have been wrong. This has nothing to do with that we don’t like the Iraqi army or are afraid of it. The army shouldn’t be inside cities. It was this that made Mosul, Tikrit, Haweja, Fallujah, Ramadi and Rutba fall. Hence, it was the right decision, and we still don’t want the Iraqi army to enter the city.
What does the U.S. say about the question of Kirkuk and the raising of Kurdistan flag in the city?
In general, the U.S. in in favor of settling the question of Kirkuk and other disputed areas through the constitution, and they still stress this. And this means the implementation of Article 140 which is long overdue. Very little of it has been implemented. They only had a question or some concerns regarding the decision of the provincial council and the raising of the Kurdistan flag, and it was whether this was going to change anything on the ground. In other words, they wanted to know whether the decision meant that Kirkuk was returned to the Kurdistan Region. And we reassured them and all people that this doesn’t mean this. The Kurdistan flag is our own right, and it is the right of the provincial council, and the constitution supports us on this matter not the federal government. People who object this can go and file a lawsuit.
The previous and current US administration is focused on war and the elimination of ISIS. After all, I think what poses a danger to Iraq is the question of the Sunnis and Shiites who are very much apart. There are many Sunni IDPs who are prevented from going back to the places where both the Sunnis and the Shiites live. This has caused objections among the Sunnis. The Sunnis’ big problem is that they don’t have a leadership to speak on their behalf. They are very much dispersed, with each group having relations with a country.
Do you predict any major changes in 2017 in Iraq?
It is clear what is happening, started in 2016, which is liberating the areas controlled by ISIS. Other than that, I don’t see other changes happening in 2017.