The Kurdish-US Dialogue: Najmaldin Karim explains how it began

Former Governor of Kirkuk

In Part I of this interview, Gov. Najmaldin Karim explained that in the long years since Iraq was first created by Britain after World War I, it “has never worked.” Here, in Part II, Karim explains how the British position, inherited by the US as “one-Iraq,” blocked dialogue with the Kurds until April 1991—when they fled to the mountains after Saddam Hussein’s repression of their post-Gulf War uprising.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Earlier this month, Kurdistan 24 spoke with Dr. Najmaldin Karim, the last legitimately elected Governor of Kirkuk. Karim was forced to flee Kirkuk in October 2017, in advance of the Iraqi-Iranian assault, and a recent meeting of the Kirkuk Provincial Council - the body empowered to choose the provincial governor - failed to agree on a successor.

Much of the second part of Kurdistan 24’s discussion with Karim involved events of 28 years ago: the Gulf War and its aftermath, including the start of the political dialogue between the US government and the Kurdish leadership, in which Karim played a central role.

But our discussion began with current events. Karim suggested there was a campaign of disinformation in Iraq that aimed at getting the parliament to demand the termination of the US military presence there.

“The only person with political stature who has come out against any steps to remove US troops from Iraq has been from the Kurdistan Region,” Karim explained, pointing to Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

“It is important that US forces remain in Iraq for stability,” Barzani has said. “Otherwise, there will be chaos.”

Responding to a question from Kurdistan 24, Karim revealed an exchange in the summer of 2017, with the then-US ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, shortly before the Kurdistan independence referendum.

On July 2, Silliman “came to Kirkuk with a group of others, and we had a meeting,” Karim explained. “He was against the referendum, even though we had made it clear that the referendum was not going to change the boundaries of Kurdistan or Kirkuk.” And we would not declare independence immediately, he continued. There would be negotiations.

Nonetheless, Silliman insisted that the referendum should happen at a later date. “We said, okay. Give us a date,” Karim said. “We will be happy to entertain that with President [Masoud] Barzani and the other political parties.”

“But they wouldn’t tell us what date,” Karim went on. “They said it’s important not to have it, because if you do, then [Haider al-] Abadi will not be reelected as Prime Minister.”

“So the fate of people—everything—was based on a wrong assumption. As if we didn’t hold the referendum, then Abadi will be prime minister.”

“They came out against the referendum” and “basically colluded with those who were aiding the militias to attack Kurdistan, and Abadi didn’t become prime minister anyway,” Karim concluded.

It is, perhaps, useful to place that very ill-advised US policy in historical perspective and contrast it with events of 28 years ago. It is far from the first time that the US has made a poor decision with regard to the Kurds.

In the late summer of 1990, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, the US refused to meet with Kurdish representatives, although a war with Iraq seemed likely.

Kurdistan 24 asked Karim to recount those days, and he took the story back to 1988 when he helped to found the Kurdish National Congress.

“We started having meetings with the State Department, particularly the Human Rights Bureau” after that, he said.

In addition, Karim became the first Kurd to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some six weeks before Saddam invaded Kuwait, Karim told the committee of Saddam’s atrocities, including his genocide against the Kurds, and warned of his ambitions.

After Iraq’s August 2, 1990, assault on Kuwait, Karim continued, we spoke with “Mam Jalal,” as Jalal Talabani was known then, “and told him that it was important that he come here,” which he did.

“We tried to arrange a meeting at the State Department,” Karim explained, but “they wouldn’t meet with him,” although the Iraq desk officer did see Talabani, unofficially, outside the building.

In February, when the Gulf War was well underway, Talabani returned to Washington. A second delegation from Iraqi Kurdistan also came to Washington and included the late Sami Abdul Rahman and Hoshyar Zebari, Karim explained.

“We asked for a meeting at the State Department” and we were supposed to meet with Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

“We were at a conference,” Karim continued, and we got a call from Schifter’s chief of staff, who said, “There has been a mistake. 

The Assistant Secretary cannot meet with them, but if they would like to meet outside the building, we’ll be happy to sit down and have coffee.”

“Mam Jalal got upset” and refused, Karim explained. “So I went with Hoshyar Zebari and Sami Abdul Rahman,” and we had coffee.

“He tried to pay for the coffee,” but, “I said no, this is not an official meeting, so we paid for the coffee.”

Karim stressed that the US would not meet officially with the Kurdish leadership, “even when US forces were fighting to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, because they had this unitary Iraq policy.”

It took another two months—after the Iraqi population rose up against Saddam, the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south, and after Saddam had crushed those revolts, “with one and a half to two million [Kurdish] refugees on the borders with Iran and Turkey”—for the State Department to agree “to meet officially with a Kurd for the first time, and I represented the Kurdish National Congress at that meeting,” Karim explained.

Afterwards, we called on the State Department to invite a delegation from Kurdistan, “because they are the true representatives,” he continued. “We are just American Kurds here,” although “we are happy to help.”

“That’s when they asked me for the names in the delegation, and I remember that I had to get their CVs, when they were born, their education, and everything.”

“The first meeting actually happened in early April,” Karim concluded, and “things started rolling after that.”

And roll they certainly did. Somewhat over a decade later, the State Department would receive two of the men—as the President and Foreign Minister of Iraq—with whom it had refused to meet in February 1991.

Editing by Nadia Riva