Najmaldin Karim remembered as hero of Kurdish cause

These were difficult times for the Kurds. After years of success against ISIS they were now threatened by Baghdad, Iran and Turkey in the wake of an independence referendum.

Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri (L) meets with Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 26, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)
Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri (L) meets with Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 26, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)
In 2017 the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk warned about threats to the city as tension increased between the federal government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region. It was October 14. Najmaldin Karim said that the Iraqi government and the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Sha’abi, a group of Shi’ite militias, had demanded areas of Kirkuk. The Kurdish Peshmerga, who controlled security in the city, would not hand it over. Karim had been governor since 2011.
During the war against ISIS the city was isolated and Kurdish forces increased control. He had raised the Kurdish flag, established a large statue to commemorate the Kurdish role in defending the city, and brought order and security. In October 2017 all that was at risk.
These were difficult times for the Kurds. After years of success against ISIS they were now threatened by Baghdad, Iran and Turkey in the wake of an independence referendum. The US had quietly worked with Baghdad to help eject Kurdish forces from Kirkuk. Karim’s governorship was at risk. He had recently been mourning the death of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who had died on October 3, 2017. Talabani could bring people together, Karim told reporters. He had tried to do the same in Kirkuk over the years, but Baghdad wanted to punish the autonomous Kurdish region for its referendum. Kirkuk would have to fall.  
Two days after Karim warned that Kirkuk was threatened he was forced to flee his residence and Iraqi security forces, backed by pro-Iranian militias, swept into the city and occupied his former governor’s office. Karim, a passionate supporter of the Kurdish cause, died on Saturday.
A statement about his final wishes says that he wants to be buried in Kurdistan and eventually laid to rest in Kirkuk when it is again free, secure and under the control of the Peshmerga. Kirkuk, for many Kurds, is a kind of Jerusalem and their struggle to have rights to the city has been a central part of the Kurdish cause for decades against Baghdad’s policies.  
Karim was born in Kirkuk in 1949. He studied medicine in Mosul and became a doctor, joining the Kurdish resistance in 1972 to fight the Iraqi regime. After years with the Peshmerga fighters he went to the United States. In the US he was a well known Kurdish activist, founding the Kurdish National Congress of North America and the Washington Kurdish Institute. He worked closely with US politicians in Congress to gain support for the Kurdish cause. These were the dark days of the 1980s when Kurds were suffering genocide by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and later in the 1990s when Kurds had to flee Saddam’s army. Eventually Kurds carved out autonomy, with US humanitarian aid and a no fly zone in the north, creating a successful autonomous region that has thrived economically.  
Karim testified to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Washington Kurdish Institute notes that he worked “closely with other Kurdish groups, US senators, and the US Department of State, Dr. Karim’s efforts led to the establishment of a Kurdish language service at the Voice of America. Dr. Karim lectured at US universities on Kurdish rights and political affairs and published op-ed pieces in the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, among others.”
He returned to the Kurdistan region in 2009 and was elected to the Iraqi parliament representing Kirkuk in 2010. He became governor of Kirkuk on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan ticket in 2011. He supported the Kurdistan independence referendum in September 2017. This enraged Baghdad and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Abadi, who was backed by the US, conspired to have Karim removed and Kirkuk returned to federal control. Under a 2005 constitution Kirkuk was a disputed area between the autonomous Kurdistan region and Baghdad, and it was supposed to be subject to its own referendum. However, Baghdad has repeatedly ignored the constitution and violated Kirkuk’s rights. This was done under Nouri al-Maliki, the pro-Iranian Prime Minister of Iraq who was backed by the Obama administration.  
Karim knew well the complexities Kirkuk faced and also that while the US had backed Kurdish aspirations they wanted a powerful and nationalist Baghdad. After Maliki fueled sectarianism and ISIS almost destroyed Iraq, the US relied on the KRG to help hold ISIS back, while seeking to empower Abadi. The referendum in 2017 led the US to work with Abadi to re-take Kirkuk, hoping to weaken and isolate the KRG and empower Abadi through the nationalism he would gain by “teaching the Kurds a lesson.” Instead, it was Iran that was empowered and ISIS attacks increased. A weakened Kurdish region now is less willing to rely completely on US support. The fact that more than 100,000 Kurds fled the crisis of October 2017 in Kirkuk, and attacks on Kurdiish farmers since then as well as persecution of minorities such as the Kakei, have led to continued anger over the October 2017 events. There is a sense that Karim and Kirkuk were betrayed.
The role of Iran behind the Kirkuk events in 2017 is clear from statements of the Kataib Sayyid Shuhada and other groups that vowed to remove Karim in early October 2017. Abadi had met Karim in Kirkuk in October 2016 during the lead-up to launching the Mosul offensive. At the time the frontline west of Kirkuk was held by Pesherga under Kemal Kirkuki overlooking Hawija. Hawija would be finally liberated by Iraqi forces just prior to Baghdad’s attack on Kirkuk in mid-October 2017.  
After Karim was forced out of Kirkuk, the pro-Iranian militias continued to complain about his role. Asaib Ahl al-Haq called for Iraq to attack other Kurdish areas and Hassan Salim, who is linked to AAH, “accused Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim of inciting people of the province to resist Iraqi security forces.”
Iraq’s authorities, backed by the militias, continued to target Karim in the years that followed. In May 2019 they even sought to have him arrested in Lebanon. “The news is far from the truth and Dr. Najmaldin Karim has gone on a trip outside the country on regular and diplomatic work and will return to Kurdistan next week,” a statement from Karim’s office said on May 22, 2019.
The tragedies of October 2017 would continue to haunt Karim. He told Rudaw media at the time, as he left Kirkuk, that “We saw some of the young people who expressed their readiness to help their peshmerga brothers to defend the land.” By then Baghdad had already appointed his replacement, Rakan Saeed, an Arab politician.  
Karim later spoke to The New Arab about the October betrayal. He said that at midnight on October 15 he learned that his own residence was a target of the Iranian-backed Iraqi operation. "I was advised to move from there, which I did. I stayed in the city and in the early hours of the 16th there was some fighting in the southern outskirts of Kirkuk, in the industrial area, between these forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga." However, he blamed a secret agreement and betrayal as the reason that Kurdish forces retreated, opening the way for the rapid occupation of Kirkuk by Baghdad. Shi’ite militia leaders Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis celebrated in Kirkuk as Kurds fled.  
Karim died of a stroke which he reportedly suffered late last week. He was remembered around the world by Kurds and Kurdish allies. Karim was passionate about the Kurdish cause and also about close relations with the US. He was remembered as approachable and always friendly. Even those US officials who betrayed him in 2017, working with pro-Iranian groups and IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani to remove the Kurds from Kirkuk, remembered him for his positive role. Two years after the October 2017 Kirkuk crises the US also abandoned Kurds in part of eastern Syria, leading to another 150,000 Kurds fleeing. Three months later, in January 2020 the US killed Soleimani and Muhandis, two of the engineers of the attack on Kurds in Kirkuk.
Karim and key figures in his administration, such a Sarhad Qadir, the local head of security and police, helped secure Kirkuk against terrorism after 2011. Hundreds of security forces died fighting extremists in Kirkuk and brought the city security under Karim’s governorship. I was in Kirkuk in 2015 and spent time with the Kurds who secured its periphery from ISIS. At the time the city was safe and secure, the extremist groups that had once threatened it had been driven underground or crushed. Today the city is threatened by sectarian tensions and ISIS. It is unclear if a Kurdish leadership role will return to the city in negotiations with Baghdad. Kirkuk, along with Sinjar are areas that the KRG wants to share power in with Baghdad.