They don't look like they're leaving.

Photographer: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish Protectors Vow to Keep Their 'Jerusalem'

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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One of the more remarkable facts about Iraq in 2015 is that Kurdish fighters today protect the diverse, oil rich city of Kirkuk from a Jihadist army.  And while this arrangement has proven beneficial to the people of Kirkuk so far, it’s just the kind of thing that imperils a unified Iraq going forward.

Touring the city yesterday, I came  to understand the full symbolic importance of Kirkuk for Kurds. Saddam Hussein spent decades driving tens of thousands of Kurdish families from Kirkuk’s neighborhoods and replacing them with Arab families. Kurdish leaders spent these decades vowing to take the city back.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003, many Kurdish families returned to Kirkuk and many Arab families were then displaced. Tensions mounted. In 2012 the Iraqi army entered Kirkuk in a effort to take full control of its security, previously shared by government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Peshmerga fighters took up positions on the southern outskirts of the city. The city council, at the urging of Kurdish and Turkmen representatives, built a trench around the city, placing a checkpoint at every entrance.

Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the first freely elected president of Iraq, calls Kirkuk the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” It’s not because the city is particularly beautiful. Surrounded by oil wells, the air here is thick with the smog of the region’s chief export; the streets are dusty and many of the buildings are unfinished. Nor is it because Kirkuk, like Jerusalem, has a population that is a delicate mix of religions and ethnicities -- mainly Muslim Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. The police department has had to impose precise quotas for what percentage of officers should come from each ethnicity.

No, Talabani says, Kirkuk is his people’s Jerusalem because the Kurds will always keep fighting for it. Najmaldin Karim, an American-trained neurosurgeon who has been the governor of Kirkuk since 2011 and was previously Talabani's personal physician, told me the Kurdish leader came up with the Kirkuk as Jerusalem concept because he was influenced by the Arab nationalist intellectuals of the 20th century, themselves influenced by the creation of the state of Israel. Kirkuk as Jerusalem, for Talabani, was a rallying cry for a city lost to invaders.

But in 2015 the slogan doesn’t work. “Since 1948, the Arabs have tried to take back Jerusalem and they don’t get it,” Karim told me. Today the Kurds pretty much have their Jerusalem. Not only do the Peshmerga protect all of Kirkuk Province, but the chief of police is a Kurd, the governor is a Kurd and the province’s lifeblood, oil, is about to flow through a Kurdish pipeline to Turkey. Karim said he expects the 400,000 to 450,000 barrels of oil the Kirkuk region pumps daily will be flowing through the Kurdish pipeline by March, as the other routes for Kirkuk’s oil to the market are either dilapidated, sabotaged or (in one case) under the control of the Islamic State.

So how did we get here? The story starts on June 10, 2014, the day the Islamic State fighters took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. At 10:00 am, Karim, told me, he met with General Mohammed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, the Iraqi general in charge of the 12th division that was supposed to protect Kirkuk. Dulaimi had bad news. Hawija, a town 30 miles south of Kirkuk had already fallen to the jihadists. The general said his soldiers would make a stand west of the city at an army base in Tal Alwad.

“I was in touch with him continuously that day and night,” Karim told me. But it was for naught. “Basically, he had given up,” Karim said of Dulaimi. “He was nowhere near Tal Alwad. He was in his command structure. All of his army gave up. They went to their homes and changed their clothes out of their uniforms.” Mass desertions ensued.  

At midnight, Karim spoke to Dulaimi again. He learned that Islamic State fighters had overrun the 12th division’s headquarters and had taken most of the Iraqi army’s heavy weapons. He offered the disgraced general an escape: "We sent him to get his civilian clothes and then helped him to go to Baghdad.”

And then, Karim says, he called the Peshmerga. Kurdish leaders in their regional capital, Erbil, had warned the Iraqi government in Baghdad about the Islamic State threat in the months leading up to the capture of Mosul. But the Kurds also made a strategic decision to stay out of the conflict up till then. As one senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government told me, “We thought this was Maliki’s problem,” referring to the Iraqi prime minister at the time, Nouri  al-Maliki, who today is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents.

Within a few days, Peshmerga brigades that were stationed in and around Irbil rushed to the checkpoints and bases surrounding Kirkuk. They remain there to this day.

Governor Najmaldin Karim, under the eye of Jalal Talabani.
Photographer: Eli Lake

It should be noted that the Peshmerga failed in August to stop the Islamic State army when it came up to the outskirts of Erbil. The advancing jihadists were turned back only after Iraqi and U.S. air strikes began to pick off their captured military vehicles. But in Kirkuk, the Peshmerga have stood against them alone.

“I am more proud of the Peshmerga than ever before,” Karim said. “They are protecting Arabs and Turkmen in the city and the Kurds.” Karim then paused, and noted that the Peshmerga were also protecting the 400,000 Arab refugees driven out of their homes by the Islamic State fighters.

Not everyone feels the same way as Karim. This week, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigade, one of Iraq’s largest Shiite militias, said that eventually his forces would free Kirkuk from its Kurdish occupation. At a press conference he trumped the Iraqis' taking of Diyala, east of Baghdad, from jihadi forces and insisted "our next appointment will be in Tikrit and in the same way we will liberate Kirkuk.”

Mohammed al-Juburi, a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council, acknowledged in an interview that Peshmerga fighters were protecting the city. “We cannot deny that the Peshmerga was able to stop the Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic expression for Islamic State. “But this will end soon. When the conflict is over, they will have to be outside of this area again.”

Technically, the future of Kirkuk will be determined by the people. Iraq’s constitution says a future referendum will settle whether Kirkuk province is absorbed by the Kurdistan region or remains independent. Kurdish politicians have so far avoided calling this vote, fearing it would flare up more sectarian tensions.

Karim told me he has the authority to ask the residents of Kirkuk whether they want to call the vote, but he stopped short of promising to do so. “I don’t think you can delay it much more,” he said. But he also emphasized to me that he wanted the future of Kirkuk to be determined by a consensus of all of the cities' ethnic groups, and not by imposing the will of a Kurdish majority on the Turkmen and Arab residents.

For now, Karim and many other Kurds are happy to be protecting Kirkuk from the Islamic State army. “It’s the first time in the history of Kirkuk that you have this place actually protected by the Peshmerga,” he said with a smile. “It’s never been like this before and they are not going anywhere.”

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net