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ISIS Threat Draws Northern Iraq Closer Together

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters have had some success against militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. The front line now cuts through Kirkuk. It's a province long-contested between Kurds and Arabs. We spoke today with the governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim. He's been in Washington, D.C., speaking with policymakers. Karim told us that U.S. airstrikes have forced ISIS militants to disperse into smaller groups, and he said the city of Kirkuk remains overwhelmed by refugees.

GOVERNOR NAJMALDIN KARIM: The burden is tremendous. We're trying to have the UN help, and they are in the process of establishing a camp. The red tape is really preventing these measures to be done quickly. The government of Baghdad also has not been very efficient in providing help to Kirkuk. But we're trying to manage the best way we can with our own resources because this process - it looks like it's going to last a while.

MARTIN: Your city is in some ways a microcosm of Iraq as it's often described - a diverse population made up of Arabs, Turkoman, Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Arabs.

KARIM: And Christians.

MARTIN: And Christians. Is the current crisis inflaming tensions among these groups? How are they handling it?

KARIM: Actually, the current crisis, I believe, has brought the people together even more because everybody realizes and sees the danger from the so-called Islamic State on the population - the way of their lives. And the people are banding together.

MARTIN: You say that the threat from ISIS has actually been a unifying force among the diverse ethnic groups in Kirkuk, but it's my understanding that since ISIS surged into northern Iraq, Kurdish forces have moved into some areas that had been disputed between Kurds and Arabs and that has made Arabs nervous. Is it fair to say that Kurdish leaders have been exploiting this crisis for Kurdish efforts to build an independent state?

KARIM: Not at all. You know, when ISIS came in June, the army abandoned all their positions, and there was a big vacuum in the area, and had the Peshmerga not moved into those places, I think you would have seen ISIS in the city of Kirkuk with everybody suffering as a result of that.

MARTIN: Although there have been reports that have indicated otherwise, according to a report by Amnesty International, Sunnis who live in Kirkuk say they have felt that they are being treated like they were part of the terrorist threat.

KARIM: I don't know if - I haven't seen anybody from Amnesty International come and talk to us about this. But I'm sure there are always disgruntled people. At times like this there are always incidents that happen. It has happened in the Kurdish neighborhoods. It has happened in the Turkoman and Arab neighborhoods.

We have tens of thousands of families that have come from the neighboring provinces, and we also have information that with these, some of the ISIS sympathizers have infiltrated their ranks and have probably setting up sleeper cells within Kirkuk. And these are the people who spread this kind of propaganda.

MARTIN: But you say sleeper ISIS cells being set up in Kirkuk, so the security situation is still not stable.

KARIM: Well, there might be sleeper cells in the United States and in France and in Germany and other places. That's what we're talking about. We're not talking about these people have taken over the city or anything, but this is just a precaution that we take. When you get 100,000 people of all of a sudden marching on your city, there could be some bad guys among these, and we're on the lookout for them.

MARTIN: You have been in Washington, D.C., meeting with lawmakers here. What do you need? What were you asking for?

KARIM: We know that there will be no ground troops in Iraq. The president has made that clear.

MARTIN: Do you want them? Do want U.S. forces on the ground?

KARIM: Well, that's not for me to decide, but there are ground forces. There are the Peshmergas. There are Iraqi - remnants of the Iraqi Army and others - other people who are willing to take up the fight, and they are taking up the fight. We're doing that in Kirkuk. It's being done in other parts of Iraq.

MARTIN: You feel confident that those ground forces can leverage the opportunities created by the strikes even though ISIS may be dispersing.

KARIM: Listen, we would've liked for U.S. ground forces to stay in Iraq after 2011, but that's not the case. They have left. The president has made it clear that they will not be back. But I think there are still other way is to fight ISIS successfully through intensive airstrikes and by arming and training the local Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and also Kurdish force is in Syria.

MARTIN: Najmaldin Karim is the governor of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Thank you so much for talking with us, Governor.

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

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