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World

Ousted Kurdish Governor Of Kirkuk Fears For His Life

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kurds in Iraq voted for independence in September, but the central government responded by sending troops to retake control of some of the places held by the Kurds. That includes Kirkuk, which had been led by a Kurdish governor with a background as a surgeon in the U.S. Now he's lost his post and fears for his life. NPR's Jane Arraf caught up with him in Erbil in northern Iraq.

NAJMIDDIN KARIM: This is Kirkuk, the center.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: That was Najmiddin Karim showing me a map on a previous visit back in May. It was at his home in the city of Kirkuk - well, not really his home. It had belonged to the official known as Chemical Ali, who was responsible for gassing Kurds in Saddam Hussein's regime. He and Saddam were executed after the war. That's how it is in Iraq - brutal endings and dramatic shifts in power. I had gone there because Karim had just raised a giant Kurdish flag over the city, a move that infuriated the Arabs and Turkmen who also claim Kirkuk.

KARIM: As far as being Kurdistan, that's non-negotiable as far as we're concerned because Kirkuk is Kurdistan.

ARRAF: But no longer. In September, Kurds voted in a referendum in favor of separating from Iraq, but it backfired. The Iraqi government sent troops to take back the city and the oil fields. As for Karim, he left the house when he got word Iraqi forces were coming for him - Iraqi forces that included Iranian-led Shia Iraqi fighters using American tanks. And that's where he picks up the story when I interviewed him again in a luxury hotel in Erbil.

KARIM: I was contacted many times by those who were working with the Iranians on my phone, insisting that I stay in the house.

ARRAF: He says they would've taken him prisoner or killed him. In addition to Iraqi forces, he blames members of his own Kurdish party for selling out Kirkuk and for threatening him.

KARIM: What happened in Kirkuk was treachery and treason.

ARRAF: With the borders to the Kurdistan region closed by Baghdad as punishment for the referendum, Karim is essentially trapped in a small part of northern Iraq. He was Kirkuk governor for six years.

And he says after all the fighting Kurdish forces did against ISIS, the Kurds' Western allies also betrayed them. The U.S. says it didn't intervene because it wanted to keep Iraq unified. Karim says they still could've helped.

KARIM: Unfortunately, there was some hypocrisy by the Europeans and Americans when it came to that issue. We have made it clear that the referendum doesn't mean declaration of independence immediately. It doesn't mean that the borders of Kurdistan will be drawn based on that referendum.

ARRAF: He's a world away from his old life in Washington, D.C., where he worked for years as a surgeon. He was even in the operating room when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. Politics in Iraq is even more dangerous. The Kurdistan region is at the intersection of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. One lesson everyone learns early here is that being a politician is a dangerous occupation. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.