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With Iraq In Turmoil, Kirkuk's Leader Says Region Is Calm


As ISIS militants have rolled south through Iraq, closing in on Baghdad, there's a very different story in the northern city of Kirkuk. There Kurdish peshmerga soldiers have taken over after the Iraqi army fled.

Kirkuk is a huge prize. It's got rich oilfields, and for years, the city has been hotly contested between Kurds and the Iraqi government. I'm joined now by the Kurdish governor of the Kirkuk province, Dr. Najmaldin Karim. Dr. Karim, welcome to the program.


BLOCK: And help us understand this. Is the entire city of Kirkuk, along with the oilfields, now in the hands of the Kurdish regional government?

KARIM: The city proper, which has a population of close to a million, together with the north, northwest, east and southern part of Kirkuk are all secured and under security forces control, which includes the peshmerga, the police and the security branches in Kirkuk.

BLOCK: When the Iraqi army started to dissolve in your part of the country, what were you hearing? What happened?

KARIM: I asked them. I said what happened to the soldiers? I asked the division commander. He said everybody changed their clothes, and they went home. Some of them joined insurgents.

The others, when they saw that, the same thing - they just disappeared. They had tanks. They had artillery. They had everything. They just snuck out one by one. That's how it happened.

BLOCK: And as you realized that the Iraqi army had disintegrated in Kirkuk, in your province, and that the ISIS insurgents were very close by, did you then call for Kurdish reinforcements to come and protect this area?

KARIM: Well, the first thing we did is we moved all our forces. We had Kurdish forces here. We had our police still intact. Actually, they are still intact in the city and around it. Together with peshmerga that we had here, we moved them forward. We reinforced that position. And, yes, we did ask for some additional forces to have backup in case something happens. And they needed the backup.

BLOCK: And what was your fear? What were you trying to prevent?

KARIM: Well, really the first thing was to reassure the people. So they won't be panic and flight from the city because that has happened before. We made sure our vital places are protected and secure - the gas - northern gas, northern oil, the electrical grid. We even declared a curfew from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. which still enforce.

BLOCK: Dr. Karim, you sound very calm today. Can you give us a sense of what daily life is like in Kirkuk now?

KARIM: Actually, it is calm, you know? It's - most people are going by their work. You know, the offices are open. You know, we got water. We got electricity. We got kerosene, gasoline. We got all of those things.

BLOCK: We heard President Obama, today, talk about taking a few days to figure out any potential U.S. military action. Would you support U.S. airstrikes now in Iraq?

KARIM: Airstrikes could be necessary in some places, but you have to remember, these people have now - are in the cities, among the population and all that. I think you just have to look for their heads and get rid of those. You know, a blanket airstrike, I think, probably will not be very productive.

BLOCK: You're talking about targeted attacks on the leaders of the movement as opposed to airstrikes on their positions?

KARIM: I'm sure they will think the best way to do that. But, obviously, a targeted attack probably will do more good. And they cannot use collateral damage - the terrorists cannot - as an excuse for more animosity toward the United States.

BLOCK: Do you think, Dr. Karim, that Iraq is headed toward a full bore sectarian war - maybe is there already? We're seeing calls for Shiite militias to take up arms again, Sunni insurgents, as we say, headed toward Baghdad. What do you see shaping up?

KARIM: It's a very dangerous situation. It's very critical. And there's true danger of full sectarian war.

BLOCK: And if that happened, what happens with the Kurds?

KARIM: I think if that happens, I think Iraq will disintegrate and, of course, have every right to declare their own future to protect their people.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Najmaldin Karim. He is the governor of Kirkuk province in Iraq. Dr. Karim, thank you.

KARIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.