The city of Kirkuk was safe from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) contagious expansion in 2014; however, the ethnic and political tensions within the province may cost as being controlled by ISIS in the long run. Controlling and protecting the province from ISIS by Peshmarga Forces belong to autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) added layers to the already complicated situation in Kirkuk.
Hemn Awrahim & Rebin FatahRebin Fatah is oil and gas expert in ICPAR. His research focus is on Iraq’s oil and gas sector, and he has published two books on the same industry. He holds BA from Salahadin University-Erbil. Hemn Awrahim is political and economic analyst in ICPAR. He is regular contributor for Inside Iraqi Politics. He has BA, major in international studies and minor in economics, from The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.
Iraqi Army request to return to Kirkuk and later drove out the Kurdish forces in Oct 2017, farther exacerbated ethnic and security tensions. With the divided community in the province, KRI’s internal division has prevented activating Kirkuk’s Provincial Council, in which Kurdish Brotherhood List has 26 members (out of 41). Plus, Baghdad and Erbil’s tit-for-tat relation has left little hope for a bright future for the province.
In order to shed light on the Kirkuk’s current situation, Hemn Awrahim and Rebin Fatah, ICPAR’ researchers, interviewed Dr. Najmadin Karim, former Kirkuk governor. Dr. Karim was removed from his duty in a legally controversial act on October 16th, 2017 after the return of Iraq’s armed forces to the province.
During Dr. Karim’s tenure, from March 2011 to October 2017, service provision improved in Kirkuk and many infrastructural projects were accomplished, benefiting the Petro-dollar money allocated to Kirkuk. During 2014 Iraqi Parliamentary Election, he was the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) list for the elections, and his party single handedly won half of the seats in the province which was the result of “serving all people regardless of their background,” as Karim said. Now, he believes transforming Kirkuk to a federal region could be the most acceptable solution.
On June 23rd 2019, the ICPAR’s researchers conducted the interview in Erbil.
ICPAR: What do you see as a major difference between your time as governor and after October 2017?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: During period of early 1960s until 2003, Baath Party implemented Arabization process in Kirkuk. During this process, they displaced thousands of Kurdish families, destroying their houses, or using them in process of replacement of Kurds with Arabs brought from places outside of Kirkuk. It also transferred several Kurdish majority districts from Kirkuk Province like Kalar, Kifri, Tuz-Khurmatu, and Chamchamal to the other provinces and added Arab majority Zab-District to Kirkuk (which was previously part of Nineveh) in the purpose of making the Arabs majority in Kirkuk. After 2003, the Arabization process was stopped, and up to 70% of the displaced Kurds returned to the province. In 2005 Provincial Elections, the Brotherhood List (including all major Kurdish political parties and their Arab and Turkmen allies) won 26 seats out of 41.
Prior to 2011, there was no adequate service provision in Kirkuk due to lake of cooperation between the former Kirkuk Governor and the Provincial Council. In 2011, I became the governor with support of major Kurdish political parties. I started cooperating with Arabs and Turkmens, aiming to provide services to all and in the whole province without discrimination. At the end of the day, everyone needs hospitals and their children need good schools. From 2011 to 2014 (when ISIS’ war started), we had been able to build or renovate 320 school buildings, building 1600 km of roads, and opened over 40 health centers and hospitals. Until October 2017, electricity provision in Kirkuk was much better than in the rest of Iraqi provinces. We have also accomplished many strategic and important projects to provide running water in the whole province. In April 2014, as a head of PUK list for Iraqi Parliamentary Election, benefiting from adequate service provision, I managed to win the majority of votes in Kirkuk. Many Arabs and Turkmens, for the first time, voted for a Kurdish candidate. The reason was very simple; my team was looking at everyone equally. The moment a government starts to discriminate against certain ethnic or religious groups; radical and fanatic groups will exploit the marginalized people and use them against the establishment.
When ISIS occupied Salah Adin, Nineveh, and Hawija in southern Kirkuk, there was only one Peshmerga brigade to defend Kirkuk. With the rise of ISIS’ threats, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) sent more forces to protect the city. Then Iraqi Federal government cut off Kirkuk’s budget. In early August 2014, ISIS occupied Makhmoor and posed direct threats to Kirkuk’s oil fields. The KRG’s forces controlled oil fields of Aavana and Bi Hassan. I mediated and helped both federal and regional governments reach a revenue-sharing deal. While there was no budget for Kirkuk, we pressured the KRG to sign an agreement to give Kirkuk $10 million/month. This money helped keeping public services, completing the unfinished projects, and paying back the contractors’ loans.
ICPAR: How the decision to hold referendum in Kirkuk come to be?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: At first, the referendum was supposed to be held just in KRG’s controlled areas not the disputed areas, but Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) insisted on having it in disputed areas, including Kirkuk. At the time, I was member of the PUK’s politburo, and I supported the idea of holding referendum in Kirkuk. Kirkuk’s Provincial Council also requested to have the referendum in the city. In the last week before the referendum, some people started arguing against the idea of holding referendum in Kirkuk fearing from not getting enough Yeas-votes and possible military conflicts. Nevertheless, as you saw, the referendum day was the safest day in the history of Kirkuk and majority of people who participated casted their Yes-votes.
I supported the referendum because the Iraqi Federal Government was not committed to the constitutional Article 140, which was supposed to resolve disputes over disputed areas. It was clear that the referendum was not to immediately declare an independent Kurdish state but to launch a new round of negotiations in order to see if it was possible to implement the constitutional article. After implementing the constitutional article, the KRG would consider a possibility to be federal or confederal region. If they would have not implemented the article, then Kurdistan leaders were to decide on the region’s determination in two years. The referendum aim was not to draw new borders of Kurdistan. The Article 140 is supposed to draw the borderline. We wanted to resolve these issues with other partners, including Baghdad, not unilaterally.
ICPAR: How the referendum affected the events of October 2017?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: I would say that the referendum was not a major reason for what happened in October 2017. The Iraqi Government leaders and officials were determined to return to Kirkuk regardless of the referendum. In 2008, Nuri al-Maliki’s Government moved Iraqi army to attack Kahanqin and Qara Tapah. They also tried in 2012 by forming the Tigris Operations Command [a joint security operational body consisted of Iraq’s army, intelligence, and police forces], but we prevented them. They were trying to obstruct Peshamraga forces that digging a trench around Kirkuk to stop ISIS’ advances to the city.
ICPAR: There were some tensions over the referendum and raising KRG’s flag in Kirkuk, do you think Iraq’s federal forces would have come back to Kirkuk forcefully and with tanks if there were no tensions?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: First of all, there is nothing in Iraqi Constitution against raising Kurdistan’s flag in Kirkuk. Iraqi Turkmen Front filed a lawsuit against us for raising the flag in the Iraq’s federal court. The court did not rule in favor of it and stated that the flag-issue is something up to Kirkuk’s local government. Second, the October conflicts were inevitable since the Iraqi Federal Government wanted to come back to K1 military base in the city and take back the oil fields that were controlled by the KRG (Aavana and Bai Hassan). The KRG was not accepting this. Therefore, the conflict was inevitable. Even after liberating Mosul on 20th June 2017, the plan was to mobilize Iraqi forces to drive out ISIS in Al-Anbar, but they finally gathered all the forces around Kirkuk. Why? Because they had an agreement with some of PUK’s officials to withdraw Peshmerga forces when the conflict started.
ICPAR: How do you see Kirkuk’s situation now?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: Currently the situation is too bad. There is no supervision of the Kirkuk’s budget as the Provincial Council is not active. The Kirkuk’s Acting Governor Rakan Jboori has been using illegal methods to control the provincial budget, including faking signatures of some provincial council members. He presented a proposal to the Iraqi Government with a list of projects for all the province and only two of them are in the Kurdish areas, with only two small renovation projects, while the budget is 400 billion IQD. Moreover, there is no major infrastructure projects in the city and the level of the services is almost non-existent. The acting governor is basically wasting Kirkuk’s resources. In six months, he has spent over 1 billion IQD ($836,792) for food and hospitality-costs in his office. In addition, he is facing many corruption charges due to mismanaging budgets allocated for reconstructing projects in the post-ISIS areas in Southern Kirkuk. Out of 268 reconstruction projects he proposed, 168 were phantom projects [existing on paper and cost public fund, but never implemented].
ICPAR: What are the most urgent steps that need to be taken regarding the province and activation of the Constitutional Article 140?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: First, the current situation needs to be resolved and the city needs to be normalized. People from all components of the city should be included in the security and intelligence offices supported by Iraqi Government and the KRG in order to create a balance between them. Also, the Iraqi Army and Public Mobilization Units (PMU) have to leave the city or residential areas. They should focus on the insecure areas in the province which are threatened by ISIS. This will lead to the return of civilian rule in the province and allow the success of the upcoming elections.
ICPAR: What could be the long-term solution for Kirkuk?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: The Article 140 was supposed to provide a viable solution. The article was drafted 15 years ago, and now things have reversed as the process of Arabization has started again. To my understanding, the Iraqi government is weak, and I do not think it has enough power and courage to implement the article as it is. Still it is a part of constitution and as long as Iraq exists, we have to abide with it. However, as I said in 2016, either for short term or long term, it is better for Kirkuk to become a federal region. Now, Arabs and Turkmens would not agree with Kirkuk becoming a part of the KRG. Both Turkey and Iran have the same position. Moreover, the International Community and UN are not supporting this idea. The question is, should Kirkuk be under the Baghdad control and everything to be decided by them? They appointed a governor who is under scrutiny for corruption. Should Baghdad decide on all the aspects of the Kirkuk administration when they discriminate against Kurds and removed most of the Kurdish officials in the high government positions? During my time, there was no discrimination and everyone was included in order to make sure there is a balance within the Kirkuk ethnic groups and KRG and Baghdad. Now, everything is run by army while the army units should not be in the city according to the Iraqi Constitution.
ICPAR: What is your future plan for the province?
Dr. Najmadin Karim: I am planning to form a coalition for the 2020 provincial elections; however, my plan depends on the Kirkuk situation. Fair elections can’t be held if the army and PMU are in the city and controlling everything. As for the planned coalition, we will talk to all the political parties and people of every ethnic group in the province. It will be a bloc for everyone and represent the whole province. We will make sure we include only people with good history and those who have not harmed any of the Kirkuk’s communities. I am sure there will be great people in the bloc, and all will serve the province and take it forward.