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What Does The Future Hold For Iraq's Kirkuk Province?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In September, Iraqi Kurdistan will hold a referendum. The legitimacy of the referendum is in dispute, but its likely outcome is not. It's a vote on Kurdish independence - that is, separation from Iraq. Kurds are broadly in favor of it. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi has called the planned referendum unconstitutional and illegitimate, and the United Nations doesn't recognize it either. Well, the referendum poses special problems in the province of Kirkuk. Kurds say it's part of Kurdistan, but it is also home to many Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and others. And to thicken the plot, it's also home to a lot of oil. Kirkuk's governor, Najmiddin Karim, who is Kurdish, is in Washington today and joins us. Good to see you.

NAJMIDDIN KARIM: Good to see you, too. Thank you.

SIEGEL: This year, you chose to fly the Kurdish flag alongside the Iraqi flag in Kirkuk. Doesn't that assert something that's still in dispute, that is whether multi-ethnic Kirkuk is properly Kurdish or not?

KARIM: Actually, the Iraqi Constitution has recognized Kirkuk and some other areas as disputed territories. So the Kurds have as much right to fly the Kurdistan flag as Iraq does with the Iraqi flag.

SIEGEL: The referendum that I just mentioned is about Kurdistan being independent. That's scheduled for September. But there is another referendum that's never happened that was called for in the Iraqi Constitution that would determine whether Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan or whether it's not part of Kurdistan. When is that referendum ever going to happen?

KARIM: Well, our governing council voted and sent a letter to the Iraqi prime ministers to tell us when that referendum will be. And the answer is, well, we can't do it because we haven't had the census. Really it has been the Iraqi government that has stood in the way of implementing Article 140 because Article 140 is constitutional.

SIEGEL: This is the article that would determine the outcome of these disputed areas in the country.

KARIM: Yes, exactly.

SIEGEL: But Kurds have made an argument over the years that the ethnic balance of Kirkuk was purposely altered by Saddam Hussein, who tried to arabicize the city. And he sent more Arabs into Kirkuk to dilute the Kurdish nature of the city. And haven't Kurds objected to the people who live in Kirkuk taking part in the very referendum about the future of the place?

KARIM: Well, that - of course, the people who have been brought in to change the demographics of Kirkuk, some of them have lived there for three decades or over, and they have children. Of course, those people have the right to elect their representative to the governing council, for example. But they should not be part of voting on the future of Kirkuk with regard to whether Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan region or not.

SIEGEL: Even if they've been there for two or possibly three generations, they still wouldn't come by the right to vote on the future of Kirkuk?

KARIM: They have every right to have their representative in the governing council and in the Iraqi Parliament. But they were brought in for a specific purpose of demographic changes and to dilute the Kurdish representation there. So with regard to voting for the future of Kirkuk, I think they shouldn't be able to vote for that.

SIEGEL: But it's almost a century since a member of the Hashemite family was placed on the throne of Iraq, which was made up of three Ottoman provinces. Over a hundred years a sense of national identity, a sense of being Iraqi hasn't taken any hold of people? Today you still feel more Kurdish than Iraqi?

KARIM: Well, it's not just the Kurds if you look at it. It's not just us. It's really more how the government that came to be after World War I treated everybody. The Kurds were always marginalized. They were never allowed. I never studied Kurdish in my school. I was not allowed to. People were not allowed to elect their own representatives, especially after 1958 when monarchy was overthrown. And I don't think really that has changed.

SIEGEL: What are you hearing from American officials here? Are they cautioning you? I don't hear a lot of enthusiasm for the September referendum or for a push toward independence.

KARIM: Well, I think what we hear from the Americans is actually, this is not the right time. Maybe it should be done after the elections - Iraqi parliamentary elections. So there is an acceptance of it. It's just about the timing. And hopefully we can end up with a resolution or a solution to this issue that will be acceptable to the Kurds, acceptable to the Americans and other friends of Kurds, and also the Iraqi government.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Karim, thank you very much for talking with us.

KARIM: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: Najmiddin Karim is the governor of Kirkuk province in Iraq still, and he's visiting Washington this week. Thanks.

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