Kurdish Doctor Najmaldin Karim once helped save the life of President Reagan when he was shot. Now his urgent job as its elected Governor is to help save the Kurdish province of Kirkuk.
I met him in Kirkuk this week with a British parliamentary delegation after a fast ride in an armour-plated car from the Kurdish capital, Erbil. Karim’s job has become much harder since the Iraqi Army disappeared “in a puff of smoke” leaving a vacuum which could have been entirely filled by Sunni insurgents.
He told us that they had targeted a Shia village and slaughtered 14 people who couldn’t escape in time. Their bodies were left rotting in the sweltering heat.
Some Kurdish military forces, the highly competent Peshmerga - “those who face death” - were already protecting the province but were immediately reinforced. I asked the Kurdish security chief in Erbil if the government in Baghdad had asked for this. He replied acidly “what government?”
Kirkuk is historically Kurdish but was colonised by Saddam Hussein. Thousands of Kurds were killed or expelled. Kirkuk now has a Kurdish majority with significant Arab and Turkomen minorities. Karim designed a power-sharing system with decentralised powers to nurture good community relations, now even more vital.
Kirkuk is not yet safe with an assassination just after we left and a later suicide bomb in a crowded market. It is on a knife edge with little traffic on its tense streets. However, we toured a beautiful and peaceful Catholic Church and learnt that fewer Christians have fled Kirkuk than other parts of Iraq. Kirkuk’s best hope is within Kurdistan.
I spent the rest of my week meeting senior political and military leaders back in Erbil to assess the historic changes that suddenly engulfed Iraq, though such changes were years or centuries in the making. Everything we once knew about Iraq was transformed in a few hours on June 9 and 10.
The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, known as Isis, had been steadily infiltrating Iraq’s second city, Mosul and systematically extorting money. On June 9 they sent a 70 vehicle convoy with about a thousand fighters to the city.
The Kurds specifically warned Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki about this but were told to mind their own business. The Kurds, who still control the east of Mosul, could have stopped Isis. The Iraqi Army, however, failed to fire a shot and deserted in droves.
Isis probably didn’t think it would cut through so quickly but defeated and humiliated six Iraqi divisions and, with other jihadist groups and Saddam’s supporters, control a massive territory.
They looted $450m from one bank alone in Mosul. Worse still, they have grabbed billions of dollars of sophisticated American military kit and can use it.
If the black-clad and bloodthirsty Isis fighters were the only problem then it could be solved relatively easily. But they and their allies have wider support and many Sunnis fear them less than they fear and hate Maliki who has marginalised and alienated them. Many in the Sunni minority also cannot come to terms with losing their dominance over Iraq.
The Kurds now have a 1,050 kilometre border with Sunnistan, which is intrinsically hostile to them, and a mere 50 kilometres with the rest of Iraq, and no safe roads linking Erbil and Baghdad. Iraq is for now effectively three countries.
One priority is to help the Kurds defend themselves. Britain and others can reinforce the most effective and efficient part of what was Iraq. Money and expertise to care for hundreds of thousands of refugees is vital as are medicines to replace what Baghdad cannot supply. The Peshmerga needs British expertise and they will need weapons and ammunition.
Another doctor deserves support. He is Deiary Kader, an orthopaedic surgeon in Newcastle, who founded the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers charity which mobilises NHS professionals to carry out knee and hip operations in Kurdistan. It puts Kurds on their own two feet, literally.
Doctors Karim and Kader and the Kurds more generally are some of the best hopes in the fast unfolding Iraqi tragedy. We should help them. Their success will save lives and is in our interests.
* Gary Kent is Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, writing in a personal capacity.