A little over a year ago, Karim, 62, was a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in suburban Washington, living with his wife in an expansive brick house in Silver Spring.
After 35 years in the United States, Karim, an American citizen, decided to return to Iraq after he saw that American forces and an entrenched local bureaucracy were making scant progress toward reconstruction. Unlike other Americans who rushed to help in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early days of combat, Karim is a new breed of returning exile who won the support of his countrymen on his own, without the support of the U.S. military — something that’s seen here as a plus.
He has come back to right the shambles of his home town at a time when Kirkuk’s future is as clouded with uncertainty as Iraq itself.
On this summer day, Karim could hardly walk a few paces outside, flanked by a security detail so large it overwhelmed the narrow street. Shopkeepers and customers stopped to stare. In a place where Islamic extremists have assassinated 10 police officers and politicians this year and, according to police, kidnapped 45 wealthy locals in the past year, the tension in the open air market was palpable.
The sunbaked city of 900,000, sitting atop a fifth of the country’s oil supply, has simmering ethnic tensions that go back decades.
The 4,500 U.S. troops who have helped keep the peace among the city’s three major ethnic groups — Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens — are on their way out. U.S. officials say Kirkuk will be watched closely in the coming months as a bellwether of the country’s fragile democracy. If Iraq descends into chaos after the Americans leave, some experts say, its fracture point may be Kirkuk.
‘We can’t be afraid’
Zozan Karim, Najmaldin’s wife of more than three decades, says her husband never asked her whether he should return to Iraq. He had been a well-known lobbyist for Kurdish causes on Capitol Hill for decades and had founded the Washington Kurdish Institute, so it was almost expected.
“He just showed me his ticket and went,” she recalled with a laugh. “I always knew he would go back. I knew it when I married him.”
She has stayed behind while their youngest son finishes up his studies at the University of Maryland.
Karim returned in 2010, winning a seat in parliament representing Kirkuk — where he grew up with 10 siblings, the son of a teacher. He was appointed governor this spring.
Several visits during the war “made me realize I could do more,” Karim said during a recent interview in his office in the provincial government building.
Karim spends his days navigating the competing interests of rival ethnic groups while trying to restore a city ravaged by eight years of war. He eats dinner alone in a heavily guarded compound ringed with concrete blast walls. He lives in the only house that was secure enough, a tan-and-salmon-colored villa that once belonged to Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a cousin of Saddam Hussein who became known as “Chemical Ali” for ordering poison-gas attacks on Kurdish civilians.