In an interview Wednesday, he told me he fled his home on Tuesday in the early evening and has no plans at the moment to return. “If I go back, my life is in danger,” he told me. “Even the night when all this happened, I had to maneuver carefully to go to safety.”
Karim’s blunt assessment calls into question a few things the Iraqi and U.S. government have been saying about the crisis that began after the Iraqi military this week drove out the Kurdish militias that had secured the city of Kirkuk since 2014.
To start, it suggests many Kurds do not put faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s recent order for Shiite militias, many of whom are proxies of Iran, to leave the city. Karim told me, “Last night Shiite militias raided Kurdish neighborhoods, and today thousands are leaving. They beat up people. This was all from the Shiite militias. The ones the U.S. led coalition said were not there.” He added: “Abadi claims there were no casualties. We have seen trucks full of dead bodies.”
U.S. officials monitoring the situation in Iraq told me their intelligence assessments are not this grave, and that they cannot confirm widespread casualties. They told me many of the Kurdish statements on Kirkuk have been overblown, but they did acknowledge that some Shiite militias participated in what the Iraqi government had assured the U.S. was originally just a military exercise and not an operation to take back Kirkuk. Before the Iraqi army moved in, Abadi even called reports of the impending invasion “fake news.”
All of this presents a problem for Abadi and his government. On the one hand, the prime minister claims that his army was asserting territorial control on behalf of the country’s elected government. Kurdish fighters have held Kirkuk since 2014, after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State rampage.
Yet the Iraqi government has now undermined the people of Kirkuk by stripping Karim of his governorship in response to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s decision allow residents of the province to vote in a referendum on declaring independence. This is a particularly tough blow to Kurds, who consider Kirkuk to be their Jerusalem. Saddam Hussein cleansed the Kurds from the city and replaced their population with Sunni Arabs.
The Iraqi army’s incursion into Kirkuk also undermines a longstanding bargain in the new Iraq to settle political disputes without violence. The Kurds voted in a referendum for independence, but they did not declare statehood. The fact that Baghdad has responded with military force sets a dangerous precedent. As Nibras Kazimi, the Iraqi-American author of the Talisman Gate blog, tweeted Wednesday: “What was lost was the gentlemen’s agreement underwriting era of new politics in Baghdad: force will not arbitrate or settle disputes.”
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