ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – The Governor of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmaldin Karim, affirmed to Kurdistan 24 that the people of Kirkuk, as well as its political parties, and its Provincial Council, all support the Kurdish independence referendum.
For the past three years, the city, and much of the province, have been under Kurdish control. In 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) attacked, six Iraqi army divisions simply disintegrated— “melted like the snow,” in the words of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.
At the request of Nuri al-Maliki, Iraqi Prime Minister at the time, Barzani ordered the Peshmerga to step into the breach left by the Iraqi army in order to prevent the city from falling to IS.
On Tuesday, Karim, who has been governor of the province since 2011, sat down with Kurdistan 24 to share his perspective on key issues in Kirkuk.
“I have no doubt that the majority of people in Kirkuk will vote yes in Kurdistan’s independence referendum,” he said. We will work with all elements of the population—the Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, as well as Kurds— to gain their support, he added.
Karim emphasized that, from the start, he had deliberately adopted a non-sectarian approach in his role as governor of the province. “Kirkuk is like a small Iraq,” he said, “with many ethnic groups.”
One problem is that provincial elections have not been held in Kirkuk since 2005.
Karim, who is Kurdish and born and raised in Kirkuk, is demanding that Baghdad allow Kirkuk province to hold local elections that are scheduled in September for the other Iraqi provinces.
Currently, Kurdish representatives constitute a majority in the Kirkuk Provincial Council, holding 26 of 41 seats. That reflects not only the large number of Kurds in the province, but the fact that Sunni Arabs boycotted Kirkuk’s last elections.
Karim is fully aware that a new vote, in which the Sunni Arabs participate, will almost certainly diminish the Kurds’ political role, as well as that of the Turkmen. Nonetheless, “It is the right thing to do,” he insists.
The Kirkuk governor thinks little of the Sunni Arab parliamentarians in Baghdad. They do not represent their constituents in Kirkuk.
Karim spoke similarly at a conference in Washington DC last month, when he noted that on the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, not one Sunni politician came from Baghdad to visit any of the 700,000 Internally Displaced Persons in the province, most of whom are Sunni Arabs—although it is customary to support those in need on such occasions.
Karim explained that the basic reason the Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk support such organizations as Ansar al-Islam, the Naqshbandi, and even IS, is because they feel disenfranchised and neglected by the central government.
Asked what guarantees the various elements of Kirkuk’s population would have after the independence referendum, he replied, “Our work over the past years for all the people of Kirkuk” shows our commitment. The “guarantee for Arabs, Turkmen, and Assyrians” is the protection they have enjoyed “by the Peshmerga and the Kurdish intelligence forces” over the past three years.
When Karim spoke in Washington, a questioner remarked that in her experience as an adviser to the US Army in Iraq, Sunni Arabs looked at Kurdistan as a different country. They went there on holiday to escape the violence and dysfunction that they experienced on a daily basis. They would have preferred to live under Erbil’s authority than Baghdad’s.
Karim replied, “The people of Kirkuk are no different.”
The Governor advised Kurdistan24 that advocating a no vote in the referendum is democratic—provided there is no foreign agenda involved. “Those who are campaigning against the referendum in the Kurdistan Region,” however, “are clearly not independent,” he said.
Karim also affirmed that postponing the independence referendum is the biggest threat to the people of Kurdistan.
In March, the Kirkuk governor ordered that the Kurdish flag fly alongside the Iraqi flag on government buildings.
Karim told Kurdistan 24 that the flag of Kurdistan will never be lowered in Kirkuk. It symbolizes the sacrifices of the Peshmerga in protecting the entire population of the governorate, while fighting IS terrorists.
The Iraqi constitution does not say anything that prohibits raising another flag in Iraq. Karim said that if Iraqi authorities make any decision to forbid raising the flag of Kurdistan in Kirkuk, it would be politically motivated.
The Kurdish flag symbolizes “all people of Kurdistan, including Turkmen, Arabs, Chaldeans, and Assyrians,” he affirmed.
Editing by Ava Homa and Laurie Mylroie
(Yadgar Fayaq conducted the interview)