The security situation in Iraq continued its lightening deterioration Thursday as Kurdish forces swept into the strategic northern city of Kirkuk after government troops fled attacks by al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents.
The militants, who seized two other key northern cities this week, moved closer to Baghdad while threatening to advance into the heavily Shi’ite south and target holy shrines there.
VOA’s Jeffrey Young spoke with the governor of Kirkuk province, Najmaldin Karim, about the movement of Kurdish Peshmerga forces into that province to protect the city from ISIL insurgents.
Young: What is the situation today in Kirkuk?
Kareem: Kirkuk is a large province. The Arab-inhabited areas in the west and southwest fell to the terrorists two days ago. The rest of Kirkuk – the city itself, the [province’s] north, east and southern areas towards Baghdad – these are all secure and safe and the situation is normal.
Young: What is the size of the Peshmerga military force that has moved into Kirkuk?
Kareem: They are in charge of defending the city from the insurgents, [who have] made a couple of attempts but we repulsed them. The size, I don’t have exact numbers, could be around 15-16,000.
Young: How did the movement of Peshmerga take place? Who did you communicate with?
Kareem: Peshmerga forces have their own command. There is a Peshmerga Ministry. After the army fled and abandoned [its positions], we requested they come and defend most of Kirkuk from the insurgents, to prevent the same thing that happened in Nineveh and Salahaddin.
Young: I take it from what you’re telling me, there is little or no confidence in Kirkuk Governorate that the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad would be able to supply sufficient military or security forces to protect the province?
Kareem: The army doesn’t exist in Kirkuk. It doesn’t exist in a lot of places – in Nineveh and Salahaddin, in parts of Diyala province, in addition to Anbar. As I said, In Kirkuk, [the soldiers] have all left, they’ve deserted. There’s no army anymore in Kirkuk.
Young: How long do you want the Peshmerga force to stay in place in Kirkuk Governorate?
Kareem: As long as necessary.
Young: Does that mean they could establish a permanent presence and become the semi-military security apparatus for the Governorate?
Kareem: They could, yes. Anything we can do to protect our people within our areas – we will not hesitate to use them.
Young: The Peshmerga are obviously a Kurdish force. Kirkuk Governorate also has other people, Turkmen and a certain number of Arabs living there. Describe how you work this out, so that all parties living in Kirkuk are comfortable with the Peshmerga coming in and becoming the security force.
Kareem: We have always had Peshmerga in Kirkuk. We just increased their numbers by about one-third. And the governing council, which includes Turkmen and Arabs, has agreed and sees the necessity of having the Peshmerga.
Young: Do you see the possibility of Kirkuk moving closer to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a result of this new development?
Kareem: It depends on what happens in Iraq as a whole. As you know, Kirkuk – along with some other areas in Iraq - is covered by Article 140. As far as an immediate political step, we are trying to control the security situation for the time being.
Young: Do you think the current situation will lend itself to closer ties between Kirkuk and the three governorates that are controlled by the KRG?
Kareem: There are close ties between Kirkuk and the KRG, just like the relationship with Baghdad. It all depends on Iraq. We don’t even know whether Iraq will remain a unified country. I don’t want to speculate on what’s going to happen a month from now, six months from now.
Young: Can you share anything regarding the communications you’ve had with Baghdad over the last several days regarding this situation?
Kareem: We are in continuous contact with officials in Baghdad. Our administrative offices are all connected. We get our budget from Baghdad, our police force is part of the Ministry of Interior, which is in Baghdad. We talk to officials frequently to coordinate. They know the army has collapsed. They understand there’s a need to protect these areas and prevent the terrorists from moving into the rest of Kirkuk.
Young: Thank you very much, Dr. Kareem.