Najm al-Din Karim is the governor of one of Iraq’s most troubled cities. Kirkuk is rich in oil but poor in peace; the city is outside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan but the Kurdish say they have historic rights to the city. The government in Baghdad disputes this. And the population is split between three ethnic groups - Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen – with each wanting the right to make decisions about the oil-rich area.
It remains unclear exactly who is in charge in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Officially security is supposed to be the duty of local police and local military together with some Kurdish units. Unofficially Kurdish armed forces control some areas while Iraq’s federal troops control others.
Which is why the Iraqi Kurdish governor’s position is so precarious. Al-Din Karim talked to NIQASH about why provincial elections have been delayed in his city, why he doesn’t want the Iraqi army causing trouble here and why, despite all this, he still believes that things can be put right using Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution (see box).
Article 140 in THREE STEPS. 1. Normalization: a return of Kurds and other residents displaced by Arabisation. 2. A census taken to determine the demographic makeup of the province\'s population. 3. A referendum to determine the status of disputed territories. Obviously whether a territory is home to mainly Kurds or mainly Arabs will have an effect on who can lay claim to the area.Al-Din Karim is also one of the physicians attending Iraqi Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, who has been ill and absent from politics for some time – he also told NIQASH how he thinks Talabani is doing.
NIQASH: You’re the governor of one of the most disputed territories in Iraq. By rights, Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution should have solved that dispute by now. But in fact, nothing has been done about it. What are your own thoughts on Article 140 now? Do you believe its dead in the water, so to speak?
Najm al-Din Karim: Article 140 is part of the Constitution and it will never die. The reason nothing has happened is because the Iraqi central government have not conducted a census or a referendum. And the Iraqi Kurdish are also partly at fault. I don’t think Iraqi Kurdish politicians in Baghdad are doing their best – they should be pushing for the implementation of Article 140.
Before any of that happens though we should certainly meet with all parties and explain what’s happening – after all, Arabs and Turkmen make up about half of Kirkuk’s population. If it turns out that Kirkuk is to become part of [the semi-autonomous state of] Iraqi Kurdistan, and such a large number of its inhabitants are opposed to that annexation, then life in the city may never be normal.
Also, I think that setting a time limit for Article 140 was a mistake. The Iraqi Constitution was written in 2005 but it wasn’t logical to think that we would be able to normalize the situation in these areas within just two years. However that doesn’t mean we would give up on Article 140 altogether.
NIQASH: Let’s move on to the most recent setback for Kirkuk. The provincial elections were not able to be held here because of conflicts between the different populations in Kirkuk.
Al-Din Karim: First of all, it should be clear that the Iraqi Kurdish side were not in any way responsible for delaying these elections. We always wanted them to go ahead without any conditions. But the Arab side had reservations. We don’t believe these reservations are actually valid though.
And the Turkmen had several difficult conditions too. For example, they demanded a quota – something that’s very difficult to achieve right now.
NIQASH: So do you have any idea when elections will be able to be held in Kirkuk?
Al-Din Karim: It’s not clear. Though we have asked the UN representative to try to raise the issue of Kirkuk’s elections again.
NIQASH: If elections did take place soon, are the Iraqi Kurdish not concerned that things might not turn out in their favour?
Al-Din Karim: It’s true that the Kurds have lost some of their seats in these last elections - but this was because of the election law passed by the Iraqi parliament and also because voter turnout was low.
Additionally many Iraqi Kurds in various parts of Iraq didn’t vote because they had left their homes in certain areas, because of the ongoing threat of violence there. I’m speaking of areas like Khanaqin, Tuz Khormato and Saadiyah.
But we’re confident in general because we believe the people of Kirkuk would vote enthusiastically if they were given the chance.
NIQASH: Let’s talk about the controversial Tigris Operations Command. It’s caused several crises around here. What’s your opinion on this Iraqi military base?
Al-Din Karim: Neither I, as governor, nor the provincial council have changed our opinions on this issue. We don’t want the Tigris Operations Command here and we don’t accept their presence. Although we have agreed to form a committee in Baghdad to try and resolve this impasse.
NIQASH: The incidents in Hawija, where protestors were killed by the Iraqi military, also seems to have seen more Iraqi army forces enter Kirkuk.
Al-Din Karim: Actually those forces did not come through Kirkuk - they entered Hawija by helicopter. They tried to come through Kirkuk but we prevented them from doing so. I know the Prime Minister disapproved of this – he told me so last time we met.
NIQASH: Actually, you don’t seem to have come down on anyone’s side after the problems in Hawija. The Iraqi Kurdish in Kirkuk can’t seem to decide whether the Sunni Muslim demonstrators killed so near to here were troublemakers or innocent protestors.
Al-Din Karim: We’re sure that those who were killed or wounded are best described as innocent protesters. But in every political crisis there are also people who start chaos and who contribute to the complexity of the security situation. We know that there are innocent people - but we also know that there are prominent Baathist leaders [former members of Saddam Hussein’s government, the Baath party is now outlawed] among the demonstrators.
NIQASH: So who’s responsible for security in Kirkuk these days?
Al-Din Karim: It’s a mixture. It’s supposed to be handled by the governor but the Iraqi army’s 12th Division is here and has no connections to us. The 12th Division has more than 15,000 soldiers as well as tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters. The local police force also has a lot of equipment and although their salaries are paid by Baghdad, they operate under our control. Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish forces here, the peshmerga, are officially commanded by the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: The Iraqi military accuses the Iraqi Kurdish of having an illegal military presence in Kirkuk.
Al-Din Karim: There are no illegal forces in Kirkuk. When they say that, they’re talking about the peshmerga and other Iraqi Kurdish troops like the asayish [who are more like secret police or an intelligence service]. But these are also formal bodies. Their representatives attend the meetings of the local security committee every Tuesday and they haven’t been doing anything secretive in Kirkuk.
Having said that, the asayish have been criticised by me and other locals because they’re not a unified force [both of Iraqi Kurdistan’s major political parties have their own asayish troops].
NIQASH: Apart from being Kirkuk’s governor, you’re actually also a personal doctor for the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani. We know he’s been ill and absent from politics for some time now. Can you tell us how he is?
Al-Din Karim: He’s improved a lot and there have been positive developments. People will hear important news about his health very soon.
NIQASH: A lot of people have talked about the power vacuum that’s been caused by Mr Talabani’s long illness. They’re worried about it for obvious reasons, as Mr Talabani is generally considered a wise elder statesman in Iraqi Kurdistan. Do you think we will be waiting a long time for him to return to business?
Al-Din Karim: I can’t answer that. His doctors still haven’t’ decided when he can go back to work. Currently it’s just too hard to tell.