The United States must work with Iran if there’s to be any hope of defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) and bringing peace to Iraq, the Kurdish governor of oil-rich Kirkuk province told Al-Monitor.
Najmaldin Karim laid out his vision for getting sectarian violence under control during a wide-ranging interview at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offices in Washington. He urged military cooperation between the United States and Iran-backed Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Units as a first step toward getting Tehran to play a more productive role in Iraq.
“I think they can cooperate, especially when it comes to the militias, cooperating as far as how to fight ISIS,” Karim said. “Now any place where there are Shia militias, US refuses to use airstrikes. Maybe they should resolve that issue because after all, the US invited Iran on the Syria issue to join the other countries. Why not do it in Iraq also?”
Karim said the province, smaller than Lebanon with a population of 1.4 million before the rise of IS, is strained to the breaking point by the arrival of 550,000 mostly Sunni Arabs fleeing the conflict. He accused Baghdad and the international community of failing to adequately help.
“We have received only 8 billion Iraqi dinars [$6.7 million] from the government in Baghdad,” he said. “That’s basically nothing with the number we have.”
The solution, Karim said, is for the displaced people to return home as soon as their towns are liberated. “These people have to go back. They have to go back,” Karim insisted. “I don’t know why it takes a long time; if their areas are liberated, all it takes is buses to take them back.”
That has often proved impossible because the Shiite militias that have dislodged IS have often proved just as sectarian. Karim said this is one area where greater cooperation between Iran and the United States could prove most beneficial.
“Particularly in areas that are mixed Sunni and Shia, you can’t just take all the Sunnis out of those places,” he said. “They are from those regions, and that’s why I think some work in coordination between Iran and the United States is necessary and important in this regard.”
He urged the United States to try to help Iraq evolve toward a more federal system of government, notably through the creation of professional provincial police forces, to provide the bulk of security at the local level once IS is defeated.
A dual citizen and former medical practitioner in the Washington area, Karim has a long experience with US politics. He was in the emergency room at George Washington University when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, and gave a physical to future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.
Karim said he’s been following the presidential race closely but has grown tired of the bipartisan proclamations of love for the Kurds. “Yeah, you know most of them really, with all due respect, it’s just a sound bite,” he said. “Some of these guys, particularly on the Republican side, are senators and they can do more than just talk about it on the campaign trail.
“For example, arming the Kurds directly, making sure that the YPG [People's Protection Units] in Syria will be provided with whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS. They have been proven very successful in their fight against them and these are US allies. I mean, really, in Syria who does the US have other than YPG to fight for them? And I think the other thing they can do is call for a cease-fire and resumption of negotiations between the government of Turkey and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party].”
Karim made it clear that the Kurdish peshmerga won’t give up any ground after playing a key role in containing IS to date. The federal Iraqi army has fled Kirkuk and outside Shiite militias aren’t welcome, he said, leaving the peshmerga firmly in control.
The next step, he said, is to go forward with the referendum to formally join the KRG while ensuring that all ethnic and religious groups can live in harmony.
“We believe that Kirkuk is Kurdistan; there’s no question about it. But as far as joining Kurdistan, there has to be some steps taken by the Kurdistan leaders and the Kurdish parliament as well,” he said. “There has to be legislation to outline the role of Turkmen, the role of the Arabs and even Kurds of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan presidency, council of ministers, parliament, even the judiciary. Because Kirkuk is not like Erbil or Sulaimaniyah — it’s not all Kurdish, so it has to have a special status within the Kurdistan region.”
The way forward, he insisted, includes a recognition by the United States that Iran can play a productive role in protecting its Shiite brethren next door — if given the chance.
“Why would Iran back off? Is the US going to back off from the places that it has influence in?” he asked. “I think they have to work together, and it’s in the US’ interest to have stability; it’s in Iran’s interest to have stability as well with the border, the big Shia community. But unfortunately a lot of the policies are always [influenced] by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey and past mistrust and all that.”
Below is a transcript of his interview with Al-Monitor, edited for clarity and brevity.
Al-Monitor: Kirkuk has welcomed about 500,000 internally displaced people [IDPs] from the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State [IS, or ISIS]. What is the province doing to help them and are you getting the help you need?
Karim: We have about 550,000 IDPs; these are almost all Sunni Arabs from areas that are controlled by ISIS. In some areas that have been cleared of ISIS since then, like in Diyala province, the IDPs have not been allowed to return. We have about 24,000 families from Diyala that want to go back but they have not been able to do so. After clearing Tikrit and some other towns in Salahuddin province, we have about 2,200 families that have so far gone back. So we have over 54,000 families. So the bulk of our IDPs is still there and the help we have gotten is almost nil.
We have received only 8 billion Iraqi dinars [$6.7 million] from the government in Baghdad. That’s basically nothing with the number we have. The international community, UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has built a camp for our IDPs. Initially it had 1,500 tents, so that’s 1,500 families — I think they expanded that to by 400 tents to give them some more land, so that’s basically the help we have received.
You get some organizations like the World Food Program and small help comes to families in the form of food or some clothing and all that; they get distributed but we really are not getting any help. I mentioned this to the UN representative, I mentioned this to the government in Baghdad, to the prime minister, and actually to the committee tasked with helping the IDPs, but they haven’t received any help.
Al-Monitor: What’s the long-term game plan for these people?
Karim: It’s not just long-term. Long-term is not good. We have to have a short-term plan. I think any place that has been cleared of ISIS, these people have to go back [to] because we in Kirkuk cannot [cope]. We’re so stressed in our resources, our electricity, our water, our medicine.
Unfortunately the ministers in Baghdad are not doing what they’re supposed to. They’re supposed to increase Kirkuk’s share of these service sectors, but they haven’t. We’re not a very big governorate, and what makes it worse is we have not received any funds for a year from them.
Al-Monitor: I think it was in June you were quoted in the media as complaining about that — that still hasn’t been resolved yet?
Karim: No, it hasn’t yet.
The government, in addition to the money that is allocated to the governorates, which is based on the population — we received so far I think about 20% of that. So we have for the whole year received 24 billion Iraqi dinars [$20 million] — for the whole year. They owe us the petro dollars for 2013 that we were supposed to receive in 2014; they owe us [the petro dollars] from 2014 that we were supposed to receive this year. So they owe us all that money.
Al-Monitor: Is Baghdad trying to send you a message by curtailing this aid?
Karim: I think there is clearly an attempt — and I’m excluding the prime minister from this because I think he really is trying to help — by some ministers, the minister of interior, the minister of health, the minister of water resources, a lot of the ministries, [to hurt Kirkuk] because they just don’t like success and Kirkuk has been very successful in a lot of ways compared to all the governorates in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: You say Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi isn’t part of this cabal that’s against Kirkuk. How have things changed since he has taken over from Nouri al-Maliki?
Karim: Really nothing has changed. He didn’t pick these ministers; they were handed to him and some of them are not even qualified to be ministers. I mean, according to the requirements to be a minister there are qualifications, you have to be a university graduate — they are not. I mean, there are some who are not.
I think there will be progress when the prime minister is given the power to dissolve this government and form a government that is inclusive of all communities: Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Shias. Form a technocratic government, get rid of these party-appointed ministers, most of whom are incompetent. I think the power that he was given by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the higher Shia authorities three months ago was very good, but I think [he needs] the power to pass reforms and form a new government. Then the prime minister will be responsible if this government fails or succeeds.
I think Iraq is at a standstill and it is going backwards to an extent. And by the way that same thing applies to the Kurdistan region. Same thing. The prime minister of the Kurdistan region [Nechirvan Barzani] is not picking the ministers, [they are] given to him.
Al-Monitor: Given the current political situation in Baghdad and Erbil, how do you propose to fix the system?
Karim: First of all, we don’t need a strong central government. But whatever government we have should have competent people in the positions. The key to resolving these problems is to delegate power to the provinces.
The eight ministries that are supposed to give their power and transfer authority are not doing so; they are refusing to do it, and not only that, they’re in such a rush, they’re afraid maybe one day they will be forced to do it [that] they are doing some irrational things. But I’d like to tell you we are not abiding by any of those decisions; we do what we think is best for Kirkuk.
Al-Monitor: Let’s talk about ISIS. Last summer, the peshmerga forces took over a large part of northern Iraq. Can you talk a little bit about the coordination with federal troops — is that still going on? What are the future plans for power sharing with the Iraqi army?
Karim: We had peshmerga in Kirkuk; we also had the 12th division of the Iraqi army. Once the 12th division found out that Mosul had been taken, they just gave up — they vanished even before ISIS arrived in those places. The boss of the division’s commander ... the head of the Tigris operations [Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir al-Zaidi] just gave up Tikrit; he gave up Hawija, which is part of Kirkuk; he gave up the entire Salahuddin province essentially and large parts of the Diyala province, and the guy is still in his position.
There’s no Iraqi army in Kirkuk. We have only peshmerga; we have police in the city, and these are who are protecting Kirkuk. They came to our governorate and they are protecting the inhabitants of Kirkuk, Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Shias, Sunnis, and they have paid a heavy price. The peshmerga and even the police have given their lives while trying to protect everybody in the city and its important structures — oil, gas, electricity and all that.
Al-Monitor: What do you think happens once — if — Daesh [IS] is defeated? Is the Iraqi army going to try to come back? How will you work that out?
Karim: It’s a complex issue. The Iraqi army was never in Kirkuk city, so no, they are not coming back to any city. But there are areas maybe to the west of Kirkuk now occupied by ISIS … if there’s a real, true Iraqi army trained and more professional army, maybe they can go to those areas. But not to the towns and cities that now peshmerga controls. There’s no one else who can protect Kirkuk better than peshmerga.
Al-Monitor: What about the referendum to join the [KRG]? Is any progress being made to carry it out? Are we waiting for IS to be defeated? Are there other considerations?
Karim: No, this referendum is at a standstill; nobody’s even talking about Article 140. In the previous government there was a committee headed by the minister of a Cabinet to deal with Article 140. It was just in name and didn’t do anything actually. But at least it was there. This Cabinet hasn’t even gone that far.
We believe that Kirkuk is Kurdistan — there’s no question about it. But as far as joining Kurdistan, there has to be some steps taken by the Kurdistan leaders and the Kurdish parliament as well.
There has to be legislation to outline the role of Turkmen, the role of the Arabs, and even Kurds of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan presidency, council of ministers, parliament, even the judiciary. Because Kirkuk is not like Erbil or Sulaimaniyah — it’s not all Kurdish, so it has to have a special status within the Kurdistan region. And by doing that I think you reassure the Arabs, the Turkmen, the others, even the Kurds that if you vote to join the Kurdistan region in a referendum, whenever that may be, then you will be assured that your rights are protected. I think that’s very important because otherwise you may just get the Kurds voting for it, and that’s not good.
Al-Monitor: Can you even contemplate a referendum when you said there’s 550,000 mostly Sunni Arabs currently displaced in Kirkuk? Would the vote be delayed until after all the people displaced by the war are back home?
Karim: These people have to go back. They have to go back. I don’t know why it takes a long time; if their areas are liberated, all it takes is buses to take them back to their places.
These people cannot vote for any election that has anything to do with the fate of Kirkuk. Even if they are there for 50 years they have no right — they are not original inhabitants of Kirkuk. Anybody who is not an original inhabitant of Kirkuk based on the 1957 census cannot vote in a referendum about what Kirkuk’s status will be.
Al-Monitor: How have IS attacks on the oil wells impacted oil production?
Karim: The only thing ISIS was able to do in Kirkuk as far as damage to the oil sector was in January when they had a big offensive and three wells were set on fire, but it clearly hasn’t affected anything. It didn’t affect the vital structures.
But of course, the export of oil from Kirkuk was affected indirectly when they took over Baiji. The pipeline transporting 150,000 barrels per day to the refinery has stopped. And of course the pipeline that was carrying the oil to Turkey since 2003 has been sabotaged many times and now goes through in Daesh areas so nothing goes through that; that’s why the oil now goes through the pipelines the KRG has built to Turkey and it goes to safe areas.
Obviously there were issues because until April these pipelines were not finished. I don’t know if Kirkuk oil exports are at 100% now, but it’s flowing.
Al-Monitor: There’s supposed to be a meeting coming up between KRG and Baghdad oil officials. Do you expect any progress on oil sharing?
Karim: Let me tell you what I expect. They go there, they meet, they make big statements and then nothing happens. That’s it. The only way to change that, like I said, we have to change the decision-makers.
Al-Monitor: This is unrelated but I read somewhere that you were part of the medical team at the hospital when President Reagan was brought in after being shot?
Karim: I was a resident but I had nothing to do with treating President Reagan. I was at George Washington University. You could see a lot of important people there — senators, Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist. I remember I did a physical on him and this was before Reagan.
Al-Monitor: What do you think of the current crop of candidates? They all sound pretty friendly to the Kurds.
Karim: Yeah, you know most of them really, with all due respect, it’s just a sound bite. Some of these guys, particularly on the Republican side, are senators and they can do more than just talk about it on the campaign trail. I think Mr. [Lindsey] Graham, Mr. [Marco] Rubio, these guys are in the Senate; they could be introducing some pieces of legislation to support the Kurds.
For example, arming the Kurds directly, making sure that the YPG in Syria will be provided with whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS. They have been proven very successful in their fight against them and these are US allies. I mean, really, in Syria who does the US have other than YPG to fight for them? And I think the other thing they can do is call for a cease-fire and resumption of negotiations between the government of Turkey and the PKK.
Al-Monitor: Do you think that’s more likely to happen now that Erdogan has finally won his election?
Karim: I think that makes it easier for Erdogan to do it. I think it would have been more difficult to do it when it was the coalition — for example, with the MHP [Nationalist Action Party] — and Erdogan has taken steps before towards changing the mentality about the Kurdish issue. Unfortunately, leading up to this election, things changed. He wanted to get the votes; he wanted to get more MPs so he can change the constitution, make the system presidential, but that hasn’t happened so far.
Al-Monitor: Going back to the whole ISIS situation, you mentioned that the Iraqi army fled and now there’s nobody left. What about the Popular Mobilization Units, the Shiite militias? Are they there? Obviously they’ve been pretty active.
Karim: We don’t have Shia Mobilization Units in Kirkuk. We have some Shias who are local. They had been provided with training and armed by the Shia militias, but they are local people. We try to help them so they can recapture their village and go back to it. We don’t have Shia militias coming from outside to Kirkuk. We’ve told them ‘we don’t need you, if we need you we will ask you, but don’t expect us to let you come without coordination with us.’
Al-Monitor: And how has that message been received?
Karim: I think so far it has been received and we haven’t had any problems.
I don’t think it will change. They have a lot of work to do in other places; why would they come to Kirkuk? The peshmerga is protecting it and the city has never been this safe since 2003, so we really don’t need them. They are needed in Anbar, they are needed in Salahuddin province, they are needed in Mosul, so they can go to those places.
Al-Monitor: Are you seeing any tensions between all these Sunnis who are coming in and the Shias who are already there?
Karim: In Kirkuk? No, we haven’t had really any issues. Kirkuk, contrary to what everybody says, actually is safe; people get along very well. This talk about ethnic tensions, sectarian tensions, really doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately, some NGOs that get grants — they have made Kirkuk their pet project — always make it sound like this big issue and they come with ideas about it, knowing nothing about it, and they come talk to you for a few hours with these eight or nine people always and they’re getting grants for that. I think instead of doing that they should help the Kirkuk administration with the IDPs and other things, spending grant money on these things.
Al-Monitor: Congress is looking at a resolution to call what is happening to the Christians over there a genocide. Some people have an eye for using that toward leverage to create this safe zone in Nineveh province for Christians, for Yazidis. Is that something that you have any opinions about?
Karim: Not really, but it’s not just Christians, Yazidis, actually even the Shabak who are Kurds but Shias; they have all been affected by ISIS killing all of these people, not just one group. You call it genocide. I think whatever you do it’s good to bring this to the attention of the international community so they can get the help.
But I’m telling you, the Christian community is leaving, creating a safe haven; what are you going to create? Those areas are all mixed. And the mixture is mostly Yezidis, Shabak, Christians; it’s true some town is more Christian than the other and vice versa, but these communities have all been brutalized by ISIS, and even before that by Al Qaeda, by the other terrorist former Baathists.
Al-Monitor: You’re worried that if there’s a safe zone for one group that it just creates more tension?
Karim: They’re a big target.
Al-Monitor: So what’s the solution? Do you think Iraq needs more federalism?
Karim: Yes, you have to have more federalism. You have to delegate power to the provinces; you have to strengthen the police.
This National Guard thing is not going to work in Iraq. The Shias are not going to allow it and it’s like forming another army and you will have a national army and then the army of Anbar, the army of NATO, the army of Salahuddin — that’s not going to work. The way to do this … start to reconstitute the police force, clean up the bad ones and form a strong police force from the communities themselves. Don’t bring them from Erbil and send them to Anbar. Don’t bring them from Basra and send them to Mosul. Have people from Mosul, from those places, and then train them, equip them and give them some decent salary so they can do their work without going [to other areas].
Al-Monitor: Isn’t that sort of the idea behind the National Guard?
Karim: The National Guard is not going to work. The Shias are not going to accept that, and even the Kurds I’m not sure. This idea of the National Guard was given to the Iraqis [by the US]. You just have this experiment where they are full time there, because they wouldn’t have any other job; that has failed before.
The Sunni Awakening was just that. The US created it and at that time, they had more support because you had 150,000 US military there; they were being funded, and then once the US left, it evaporated. It’s not going to work. I think the best way to do this is federalism; have local police. Federal police it’s OK to have in Baghdad, just like we have the FBI here, but local police should be local under the administration of the governorate, not the Ministry of Interior.
Al-Monitor: What do you think the US and others could be doing now to plan for ... post-IS to avoid any potential conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, Baghdad and Kirkuk?
Karim: There’s already conflict between Baghdad and Erbil — not just oil; there’s other issues. The oil is the most prominent but there are a lot issues with Baghdad. We have some issues with Erbil, small ones, but we have more issues with Baghdad. Look at the corruption in the ministries. I think the US needs to prepare for after Daesh but I don’t see that happening.
Al-Monitor: What do you think they could be doing?
Karim: I think one of them is this police force; the other thing is from now, work on having the IDPs go back to their places, particularly in areas that are mixed Sunni and Shia. You can’t just take all the Sunnis out of those places. They are from those regions, and that’s why I think some work ... coordination between Iran and the United States is necessary and important in this regard.
I think there is obviously a resistance from here about removing sanctions and all that, but I think the president can take the steps. After all, there’s an agreement. In Iran, if that doesn’t happen, there are people — hardliners who don’t want this because it will affect their positions — who will say “well we knew from the beginning that they were not serious about this.”
Al-Monitor: Do you think there is a possibility for getting Iran to play a positive role in Iraq?
Karim: Why would Iran back off? Is the US going to back off from the places that it has influence in?
I think they can cooperate, especially when it comes to the militias; cooperating as far as how to fight ISIS. Now any place where there are Shia militias, US refuses to use airstrikes. Maybe they should resolve that issue, because after all the US invited Iran on the Syria issue to join the other countries. Why not do it in Iraq also?
Al-Monitor: And you think if that happens, it will have beneficial effects?
Karim: Well, you have several Shia militias the prime minister is not controlling. Nobody controls them — each one is on its own — and maybe they are competing with each other that Iran can control.
I think they have to work together, and it’s in the US’ interest to have stability. It’s in Iran’s interest to have stability as well with the border, the big Shia community. But unfortunately a lot of the policies are always [influenced] by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey and past mistrust and all that.