Worrying times: The governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddin Karim, is standing by his decision to support the Kurdish referendum on independence. (photo: Shwan Nawzad)
On September 14, the Iraqi parliament voted to dismiss the governor of Kirkuk from his post. The decision came after the governor, Najmuddin Karim, said that the Kirkuk area would also take part in the Kurdish referendum on independence held this week, on Monday. The Kurdish minority in Iraq want their region to secede from the rest of Iraq and to begin to start a new nation; they already have their own government, military, and borders.
The decision on Karim’s position was made in the Iraqi parliament even though Kurdish MPs boycotted the vote. Karim rejected the dismissal as did the political party he belongs to, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Iraqi Kurdish government, which controls the semi-autonomous northern region. The Kirkuk provincial council also supported the governor. However Arab and Turkmen members of the council who represent a significant proportion of Kirkuk’s population boycotted the session.
There is no doubt that Kirkuk has a Kurdish identity and that its fate is entwined with that of the Kurdish region.
Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s most controversial “disputed areas” – that is, an area that the Iraqi government says belongs to Iraq but which the Kurdish believe should be part of their region. Although the Iraqi Kurdish military control the district, the population includes significant numbers of Arabs and Turkmen too, and this is why the city is often referred to as a potential flashpoint for ethnic conflict.
Karim spoke to NIQASH about the Kurdish referendum on independence as well as his dismissal and its ramifications for his authority in Kirkuk in the future.
NIQASH: There were a number of different options presented to the Kurdish leadership along with requests to postpone the referendum, but none of them seemed to be acceptable. Why?
Najmuddin Karim: The alternative proposals were not concrete. When the Iraqi prime minister spoke about problems, he was talking about amending the Constitution, which isn’t possible. We would only have agreed to postpone the referendum on condition that a date for Kurdish independence was set. There is no doubt that Kirkuk has a Kurdish identity and that its fate is entwined with that of the Kurdish region.
NIQASH: There have been a lot of rumours about increasing tensions around Kirkuk, between the Iraqi army, Iraqi Kurdish military and the Shiite Muslim militias.
Karim: We should not confuse the military topic and the referendum. The biggest Turkmen village in Kirkuk, Bashir [about 27 kilometres south of Kirkuk city], was freed by the Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish military] and then passed over to the Hashd al-Shaabi [Shiite Muslim militias] to supervise. Some of the leaders of the Hashd al-Shaabi have fought alongside the Kurdish in the mountains, against the Iraqi army. One them is Hadi al-Ameri [leader of a major militia, the Badr group]. Those older connections between us will prevent any clashes in this area.
NIQASH: There’s been a lot of international opposition to the Kurdish referendum.
Karim: We have informed officials from the Iranian government who visited, that the PUK supports the road map toward Kurdish independence and we will not compromise. We expect neighbouring countries to deal with us appropriately, as they did with the Republic of Azerbaijan, even though there were Azerbaijani nationals in their countries then.
NIQASH: Has the Iraqi government communicated with you about the fight to push the extremist Islamic State group out of Hawija?
Karim: No, we were not consulted. The operation started out of eastern Tikrit. The force we supported, the volunteer militia out of Hawija, is involved in the operation.
NIQASH: Will the Iraqi Kurdish military take part in the fighting in Hawija?
Karim: We discussed this issue with the Peshmerga Ministry but up until now, there’s been no agreement on when to start the fight from out of areas controlled by the Peshmerga.
NIQASH: The Iraqi parliament says they want to dismiss you from the governor’s post. But you have said the decision doesn’t affect you. So what’s your next step?
Karim: The Kirkuk provincial council, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish political parties and various lawyers have all rejected that decision. So we are not going to abide by it.
Additionally the law on provincial councils, passed in 2008, says that it applies to all provinces - with the exception of Kirkuk. That is why neither the Iraqi parliament nor the prime minister has the power to dismiss me.
NIQASH: Of course, you’re not the first governor to be dismissed in Iraq. So why should these dismissals apply to other governors, but not you?
Karim: Those provincial councils unanimously withdrew confidence from those who were dismissed. The Kirkuk provincial council has not done this.
NIQASH: But if Baghdad does the same thing it has done in Iraqi Kurdistan and it stops sending Kirkuk its share of the national budget, what are you going to do?
Karim: If this happens, we will be able to manage and we will maintain the salaries of all government employees and security services.
NIQASH: Baghdad has also accused you of corruption. How do you respond to that?
Karim: I have been the governor for the past six and a half years and this issue was never raised before. It’s clear that the accusation is politically motivated. In fact the person accusing me was previously imprisoned in Kirkuk for theft and forgery. He should have been sentenced to life imprisonment and not been allowed to become an MP.
NIQASH: How long do you plan to stay in Kirkuk?
Karim: As long as the people of Kirkuk accept me. I will not bow to pressure. I will stay in the governor’s job.