ERBIL — Former Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim, who also served as the politburo member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) until last October when Kirkuk was overrun by the Iraqi army and pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi, has made it clear that he is proud of holding the Kurdistan independence referendum in Kirkuk, calling it a historic event.
In an exclusive interview with Bas newspaper, Karim explained the current situation in Kirkuk under the rule of Baghdad government, detailing the deteriorating situation across the Kurdish areas disputed between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
[This interview was translated from Kurdish and edited for clarity and length.]
Bas: How do you evaluate the current situation in Kirkuk?
Karim: Prior to 16th October , the majority of [Kirkuk] provincial council was made up of Kurds, with a Kurdish figure serving as the acting head of the council. We took part in the elections and received a noticeable number of supporting votes. We had promised the people that we won’t go to Baghdad for ministerial positions, but we would rather stay in Kirkuk to serve the people there. That was the reason I stayed in Kirkuk. In June 2014, the Iraqi army in Kirkuk collapsed. In less than 24 hours, part of the troops joined Daesh [the Islamic State], and the rest escaped to Baghdad. Back then, we had one brigade of Peshmerga forces, who stood against Daesh with the help of local police and security forces… They helped protect Kirkuk and its oil and gas fields.
Later, when Mr. Masoud Barzani paid a visit to Kirkuk, he ordered reinforcement of Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, and the establishment of frontlines. Also, trenches were made around Kirkuk which all resulted in having the province secured with no bombings. In the cities, no Peshmerga troop was present, but police and security forces together with those under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi interior ministry were in charge.
However, after 16th October, the situation totally changed when Peshmerga was no longer in Kirkuk, but Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi army (what is being referred to as the federal police, but they are the same Hashd al-Shaabi in different uniforms) entered Kirkuk. The areas of Hawija, Rashad, Zab etc, are now totally insecure. Especially during nighttime, the Iraqi forces all retreat to their bases…Elsewhere in Daquq and Dubiz, properties are being taken away from their true owners who are the Kurds who returned to the area after 2003. These properties are being given to non-indigenous people by the Iraqi government.
The situation in central Kirkuk is the same. The Kurds have no authority, but instead, Hashd al-Shaabi and Hashd al-Turkmani are in power, and they abuse the Kurds. A Kurdish individual may not do anything freely if he does not pay them.
Bas: There are some parties which keenly work to hold a session of the provincial council in hopes of electing a new governor for Kirkuk. Do you believe it could make any difference?
Karim: Even if they elect a new governor, it might not change anything because the governor won’t have power to rule. It could even be worse for Kurds if the new governor elected happens to be a Kurdish figure. I will not accept it even if I am asked to return to governor’s position in the current situation.
Bas: What about the oil of Kirkuk? Where does it go now?
Karim: Before 2014, the oil of Kirkuk was completely under the control of Iraq’s North Oil Company. Its largest part was being sent to Beiji and Kirkuk oil refineries. The rest was being exported to Ceyhan port [in Turkey] via the Iraqi oil pipelines… After the Iraqi army withdrew from Kirkuk in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government conducted an operation to protect the oilfields… The 170,000 barrels of oil which was being exported then via Kurdistan pipelines was even then under the control of Iraqi North Oil Company. After 16th October, the situation totally changed. The Iraqi army and North Oil Company are now in control of Kirkuk oil.
There was a proposal by the Kurdistan Regional Government to Baghdad, suggesting the export of Kirkuk oil to Turkey via Kurdistan’s pipeline. However, the proposal has been rejected by the Iraqi government, and it has caused a loss of nearly $7.5 billion… It seems that Baghdad rejects its own benefit in order to not allow a small share of the revenues go to the Kurdistan Region.
Bas: After several months, how do you see the events on 16th October now?
Karim: Our weak point was the fact that we didn’t have one Peshmerga force under one command… As PUK’s politburo, central council and leadership council, we had decided to hold the independence referendum also in the disputed territories… I was a member of the politburo, and followed the decision.
In my opinion, the neighbouring countries and a PUK faction outside its leadership made an agreement with Baghdad [against the referendum]. The agreement was made for some [personal] benefits. They argued that the Peshmerga could not stand against the Iraqi army. But the truth is that the Peshmerga could defeated Daesh, those from who the Iraqi army had already fled.
Bas: You are among the influential people in the PUK leadership. Why couldn’t you prevent this group within the party from making such an agreement with Baghdad?
Karim: I explained the main reason before: when you don’t have your Peshmerga forces under one command, part of them, could be for money or because of threatenings, left the frontline [against the attacking Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shaabi].
Bas: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is also sometimes being accused of having a role in what happened on 16th October. What is your comment?
Karim: I am not talking about parties, and it is not my job to defend the KDP. The Kurdistan Regional Government and Kurdistan Region President were leading the attempts to hold the independence referendum. We were supporting the attempts. I am proud that the referendum was also held in Kirkuk, and I am proud that I had a role in it because it is going to remain as a historic event. A day before referendum and during the meeting in Dukan, it was agreed that no political side should unilaterally make any agreement with Baghdad. However it was not fulfilled. In my opinion, Mr. Masoud [Barzani] fulfilled his duties and did what he was supposed to do.
The plan was [that the Iraqi army] coming to Erbil and then taking the whole territories under control till it reaches the Turkish border. However, it didn’t succeed because the Peshmerga stood against them, and Mr. Masoud [Barzani] was personally involved.
Bas: Throughout your political life, you have always had a good relationship with the late PUK leader Jalal Talabani, but his family now is not in a good relationship with you. What is the reason?
Karim: Because I stood against them when it came to the independence referendum. Since it was decided, I frankly said during the meetings of the politburo and leadership council that Kirkuk should be included in the referendum.
Bas: On its path towards in independence, where is Kurdistan now?
Karim: The inspiration of statehood will never end. This situation has just delayed it; till when, it is not clear yet because the wider region is going through a crisis… I hope that we learn from 16th October and finally establish a unified and professional army for Kurdistan to protect the rights of the people. I also hope that the efforts will seriously continue to eradicate corruption and strengthen the economy. It was not for some internal disputes in Kurdistan, other countries might have not been able to exploit the situation [against us].
Bas: What is your current position within the PUK?
Karim: I don’t have a practical position now, and that is the reason I do not attend meetings. PUK deputy secretary general has several times asked me to attend meetings, but I will have to make the decision… I have not abandoned the party. It is a process that requires official and bureaucratic work. I have also discussed this. However, I will let you know when the time comes.
Bas: There were rumours saying that Najmaddin Karim will form a separate list for the elections. Is there any truth in that?
Karim: That group within the PUK accuses anyone who is not with them. They sometimes accuse me of having ties with Baghdad secretly, or being corrupt, or joining the KDP. They also question where I live now, asking why am I living in Erbil. Isn’t Erbil part of Kurdistan?
Bas: This could be another question: Why didn’t you go to Sulaymaniyah?
Karim: I was not sure about my safety. That is why I didn’t go to Sulaymaniyah.
Bas: How do you describe your relationship with Masoud Barzani?
Karim: I know Mr. Masoud since the early 1970s. I accompanied Mustafa Barzani during his trip to the United States. The KDP itself is a political party with history which fought for the Kurdish cause, and it paid sacrifices and lives for that. I was a Peshmerga and a member of the KDP. Mam Jalal [Talabani] was also a member of the KDP. I have good relationships with Mr. Masoud [Barzani], and I believed that he is a powerful leader of Kurdistan. There is no one in Kurdistan that could compete with Masoud Barzani in having influence in Iraqi and international politics. I am proud of the friendly ties with Masoud Barzani, but I am not a KDP member.
Bas: Is there anything you have done since the day you raised the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk that you regret now?
Karim: I do not regret anything. If I were to return to the same point, I will do the same thing with more confidence. The Kurds in Kirkuk are now being oppressed, killed, arrested or looted every day, just like in the era before 2003.