Kurdish Forces Request More U.S. Support In Fight Against ISIS
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The province of Kirkuk is the crossroads of Iraq. To the north are the majority of the country's Kurds, to the south - Arabs. And now Kirkuk is on the frontlines of the battle with ISIS. Last month, Kirkuk province was the site of a prison raid by U.S. and Kurdish forces. One American soldier was killed. Earlier today, I spoke with the governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, from our studios in Washington. And he said the raid was meant to rescue Kurds who'd been captured by ISIS. And instead, it freed ISIS fighters who'd been imprisoned by their own leaders.
NAJMALDIN KARIM: Among these were two who are considered somewhat senior locally in the region. One of them was the prison administrator, and the other one was some guy who used the last name of Shishani. And Shishani is a village in that area, so he's probably from - they were local.
MCEVERS: Is that what you're seeing to be true of a lot of these fighters, that they are locals, that they are Iraqis?
KARIM: Probably 95 percent or more are Iraqis, yes.
MCEVERS: After ISIS took Mosul last summer, Kurdish forces moved in to push them back and move into Kirkuk, which, of course, is contested territory between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in the North. Are Kurdish forces still holding the line against ISIS in Kirkuk?
KARIM: The Peshmerga forces are the only forces that are holding back ISIS, and more ISIS fighters have been killed in Kirkuk than any other place in Iraq. And the people who are protected by Peshmerga forces are Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis - all sex, all religions, all ethnicities.
MCEVERS: But just a few days ago, I mean, militants were able to penetrate territory controlled by Kurdish forces and, for a time, occupy the mayor's office in - at this town. I mean, what does this say about the strength of the Kurdish forces there?
KARIM: We have over 550,000 IDPs in Kirkuk - internally displaced people. These are all 100 percent Sunni Arabs from different parts, and I'm sure among these, there are a few bad guys like those guys who were - 3 suicide bombers. They came. They entered the building. They blew themselves up, and it was retaken within minutes afterwards. But Kirkuk, overall, has been very safe. It has never been this safe since 2003, actually.
MCEVERS: You're in Washington this week speaking to officials and different think tanks. Are you asking for more help in the fight against ISIS?
KARIM: Yes, we do. The help we're asking for is, we need to have better training, better weapons. The airstrikes have to be more frequent, more intense. It definitely has helped, but there cannot be any layup in these airstrikes against these terrorist organizations. So our needs are significant, and this is a fight that needs coordination between different groups. And today, the most effective group is the Peshmerga forces in Iraq and the YPG forces in Syria.
MCEVERS: You make a very compelling case, and it sounds like it's a case you've made many times. Give me your honest answer. Are you getting a sense in Washington that more help is on the way?
KARIM: Well, things have changed, of course. Everybody talks about no boots on the ground. And I agree. I think American people are not in the mood of having the repeat of 2003 and after that. But then you have the forces that can do the work for you there, but they need your help. Believe me. It's much cheaper to provide weapons and training to these people who are doing the job on the ground with the help of airstrikes than to send U.S. forces to the region.
MCEVERS: Well, doctor Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk, thank you so much for doing this today.
KARIM: Thank you very much - glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.