‘Neurosurgeon from Maryland’ credited with bringing peace and normalcy to Kirkuk; played key role in starting US-Kurdish dialogue
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Dr. Najmaldin Karim, former Governor of Kirkuk—where he was born and raised—and a tireless advocate for Kurdish rights passed away peacefully on Friday in the United States after suffering a stroke. He is survived by his wife, four children, and four grandchildren.
Dr. Karim’s official Facebook page announced that his body would be brought back to Kurdistan and buried there temporarily—until the city of Kirkuk is liberated and returned to the control of the Peshmerga—as he specified in his will.
Karim, who became Governor of Kirkuk Province in 2011, was the last democratically-elected official to hold that position— from which he was ousted in the fall of 2017, after the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum, when Iraqi forces attacked Kirkuk in a military operation engineered by Qasim Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, who was later assassinated by US forces.
Michael Knights, a Boston-based fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, visited Kirkuk in 2013 and spent some days with Gov. Karim, about which he wrote in the highly regarded magazine, Foreign Policy.
“Doctor’s Orders: How a neurosurgeon from Maryland cleaned up one of the most notoriously violent cities in Iraq” was the title of Knights’ upbeat assessment.
“Slowly but surely,” Knights wrote, “Kirkuk’s administrators have reestablished a degree of normalcy—even prosperity—to their corner of Iraq.”
“Much of the credit should go to Karim, who was sworn in as Kirkuk’s governor in April 2011,” Knights continued. “While governors often act as a crippling bottleneck on local development in this country [Iraq], Karim’s office was efficient: Every morning he turns to an enormous ledger of authorizations and letters to dispatch, then holds disciplined roundtables with key municipal leaders,” while in the afternoon and evening Karim held more traditional, ad hoc, personal meetings—as if he straddled, in one day, the two worlds he knew so well—with the administrative efficiency of the west and the friendly, informal practice of the Middle East.
Condolences and Tributes
Many figures have expressed their sadness at Karim’s passing. The Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region Masrour Barzani, in an official statement of condolence, described Karim as a “true nationalist and faithful patriot of Kurdistan,” who “spent his life playing an important role in fighting for the Kurdistani nation’s rights and its liberation movements, promoting the Kurdish cause at home and abroad.”
“On this sad day, I extend my sincerest condolences to his family, the people of Kurdistan, and the city of Kirkuk where he leaves an indelible mark,” Barzani said.
Similarly, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Foreign Minister, Safeen Dizayee, tweeted “Deeply saddened by the passing of Dr #NajmadinKarim. For decades he served his nation commendably both in Kurdistan and abroad, and will be remembered as a Peshmerga, politician, physician, governor and true patriot.”
Deeply saddened by the passing of Dr #NajmadinKarim. For decades he served his nation commendably both in Kurdistan and abroad, and will be remembered as a Peshmerga, politician, physician, governor and true patriot. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones. RIP pic.twitter.com/jN5Ip58mWT — Safeen Dizayee (@SafeenDizayee) October 31, 2020
Similarly, the US Consulate General in Erbil tweeted its “sincere condolences on the passing of the #Kurdish patriot politician and surgeon, Najmaldin Karim.”
U.S. Consulate General #Erbil offers its sincere condolences on the passing of the #Kurdish patriot politician and surgeon, Najmaldin Karim. We share our deepest sympathies with Karim’s family, his friends, and the people of the #Iraqi_Kurdistan_Region and #Iraq. pic.twitter.com/6MiHWzU3xO — U.S. Consulate General Erbil (@USConGenErbil) October 31, 2020
Knights described “Governor Najmaldin” as someone who “knew US politics better than pretty much any other Kurdish leader.”
“He knew McCain, Biden, Warner, and most closely Chris Van Hollen. Expect a lovely eulogy from him,” Knights tweeted.
One final thing for now on Governor Najmaldin: he knew US politics better than pretty much any other Kurdish leader. He knew McCain, Biden, Warner, and most closely Chris Van Hollen. Expect a lovely eulogy from him. — Michael Knights (@Mikeknightsiraq) October 31, 2020
“Saddened by the death of Dr. Najmaldin Karim: great Marylander, diplomat, tireless advocate for the political, cultural and human rights of the Kurdish people,” Sen Chris van Hollen (D, Maryland) tweeted. “A man of courage and conviction” and “a dear friend.”
Saddened by the death of Dr. Najmaldin Karim: great Marylander, diplomat, tireless advocate for the political, cultural and human rights of the Kurdish people who also pushed for early US action against ISIS. A man of courage and conviction—a dear friend. We will not forget him. pic.twitter.com/xC3WLTna6x — Senator Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) October 31, 2020
Indeed, Dr. Amy Austin Holmes, a Wilson Center fellow, who moderated a seminar with Karim in 2018 on the Kurdistan independence referendum, summarized his “remarkable life” to Kurdistan 24.
“He was a tireless advocate for Kurdish rights, providing crucial testimony before the US Congress on Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign,” she said. “But he was also a successful neurosurgeon who worked for decades in the Washington DC area. Not many people would give up such a career and return to Iraq – and try to govern Kirkuk. But that is what Dr. Karim did. His legacy will surely inspire people for generations to come.”
Karim’s Early Life: Supporting the Kurdish National Movement in Iraq
Born in Kirkuk in 1949, Karim became “a politically active Kurdish patriot at a young age, joining the Kurdish national movement when he was still in high school,” the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI), which Karim founded in 1996, explained as it announced the sad news of his death.
“After graduating from Mosul Medical School in 1972, he joined the Peshmerga and also served as a physician. He then devoted his life to advocating for the Kurds’ cultural and political rights, and their struggle for self-determination in the Middle East,” WKI’s statement continued.
In 1975, the Shah of Iran struck a deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein over their riverine border, and both countries withdrew the support they had been providing liberation movements in each other’s countries.
The Baluch revolt collapsed in Iran and the Kurdish revolt collapsed in Iraq. The legendary Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, came to the US, where he sought medical treatment. His personal doctor—Najmaldin Karim—accompanied him.
As a medical doctor, Karim enrolled in the neurosurgery residency program at George Washington University and developed a thriving neurosurgery practice in the Washington area. At the time of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Regan, in March 1981, Karim was personal physician to James Brady, the White House Press secretary.
Brady was seriously injured in the shooting, and “Karim was on the team of physicians as first responders,” Yousif Ismael, Director of Policy and Media at WKI, told Kurdistan 24.
Tireless Efforts in Washington DC: The Start of the US-Kurdish Dialogue
From the start, Karim played a central role as an advocate for Kurdish rights. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Saddam’s Anfal genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s.
It was Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, however, that really set the stage for the development of relations between the US and the Kurds, even as US officials were extraordinarily reluctant to pursue such ties.
Following Iraq’s attack on Kuwait, Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, traveled to Washington—but, strangely, no US official would meet with him!
As The Washington Post reported, “A State Department official said yesterday that administration officials would not meet with Talabani. ‘Our concern for the Kurds is for their human rights and not as a nationality to be broken off from a republic.’”
Karim, of course, had been involved in the attempt to broker such a meeting.
When, President George H.W. Bush called a unilateral ceasefire to the 1991 Gulf War, on Feb. 27, 1991, he expected Saddam would be overthrown in a military coup.
But, of course, there was no coup. Instead, the Kurdish population in the north and the Shi’ite population in the south rose in revolt. Talabani returned to Washington, with Karim helping to arrange meetings for him.
Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights (who, himself, passed away last month), initially agreed to see Talabani. But he was obliged to cancel the meeting, and, instead, two junior staffers saw Talabani at a nearby coffee shop.
Talabani went on to Ankara, where Turkey announced that senior officials had met with him and other members of the Iraqi opposition—underscoring what might charitably be called the lunacy of the US position. Indeed, later that month, the Iraqi opposition—including Hoshyar Zebari, who headed the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Foreign Relations bureau and became Iraq’s first foreign minister after Saddam’s overthrow—met in Riyadh.
Although key allies were meeting with the Iraqi opposition, including the Kurds, the US would not—even as Saddam was crushing the popular revolts with the remnants of his Republican Guards that had escaped what was supposed to have been the encirclement of their positions.
That policy, however, was not so widely known. A senior Pentagon official sought to meet with a Shi’ite opposition figure, only to be told he could not. That blew the lid off the policy, as it became public. As soon as it did, the policy was reversed.
Thus, in April 1991, Dr. Najmaldin Karim became the first Kurdish representative to meet formally with a US official following the invasion of Kuwait.
That was the start of a US-Kurdish dialogue that has blossomed into what it is today: meetings between US and Kurdish officials are routine, while the KRG has official representation in Washington.
So what explains the craziness of the initial US policy? The Bush administration’s conviction that a coup was coming remained strong, and, it was thought, the uprisings had caused the plotters to rally around Saddam. As one Iraq expert whom the administration regularly consulted told The Washington Post, “The rebellion is strengthening Saddam, not weakening him,” adding, “no military is going to overthrow him, while they are fighting a rebellion.” So if the US let Saddam suppress the uprisings, a coup would follow.
Of course, no coup came, and Bush began to regret the way the Gulf war had ended. Although the US continued to pursue a coup, it added a second dimension: it would support an armed opposition that could operate out of the Kurdistan Region, which, by then, was protected by Operation Provide Comfort and which the Peshmerga had cleared of Saddam’s army and intelligence.
In that context, Karim played a key role, working with the US Congress, State Department, and other Kurdish groups, to establish, in April 1992, the Voice of America’s Kurdish language service.
Karim also assumed a significant role in the Iraqi opposition, as a founding member of the Iraqi National Congress (INC.) The INC was founded in 1992, with US support. It was one element in the new policy of developing an armed Iraqi opposition to Saddam’s regime.
He was also a founding member and president of the Kurdish National Congress of North America (1991-1999.)
Eight Years of Stalemate, followed by 9/11, and Bush’s Resolve to Oust Saddam
Although in 1992, when Clinton ran for president, he said that Bush should have ousted Saddam during the Gulf War, once he won the presidency, Clinton had little appetite for dealing with Saddam.
The US continued to support a military coup (which failed spectacularly in 1996 with the arrest of all the plotters), but a broad-based opposition, represented by the INC, was allowed to languish.
However, all that changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and a new president, George W. Bush, resolved to oust Saddam. The Iraqi opposition was reinvigorated.
In December 2002, the Iraqi opposition held a conference in London, part of US preparations for Operation Iraqi Freedom—which would begin in March. Karim participated in the meeting and was elected to the 65-member Steering Committee.
Karim was also involved in the follow-on Salahuddin conference of the Iraqi opposition, as preparations for the war progressed. And he was a member of the opposition Baghdad conference, following Saddam’s overthrow in April.
Karim returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009 and was elected a member of parliament for the Kurdistan Alliance for Kirkuk, before serving as governor of Kirkuk. He became a popular figure in the city of his birth, for the reasons described above by Michael Knights.
Generous with his time with Kurdistan 24
Karim gave several significant interviews to Kurdistan 24—important because he knew the issues extremely well; was ready to speak clearly and frankly about them; and was ready to take the time that was necessary to sit down and explain them. Gov. Najmaldin Karim during an interview with Kurdistan 24 last year in Washington DC. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
Speaking last year about security arrangements in Kirkuk, Karim stated that the “Shia militias, who have no business in the city of Kirkuk, should go back to their original place or to places where they are needed to combat ISIS.”
In a 2018 interview, Karim described the nature of ISIS in Iraq, while he warned, already then, that the terrorist group was making a comeback.
In speaking with Kurdistan 24, Karim stressed the local nature of ISIS—at least what he knew well: ISIS in Kirkuk. In Kirkuk, ISIS does not consist of foreigners, but people from the province.
“Peshmerga fought ISIS bravely, and hundreds of them were killed,” Karim said. “We have their pictures, their DNA. They’re all from the area.”
“What was called the liberation of Hawija,” he continued, “was basically these people shaved, threw the dishdasha, threw their things, went to their homes, and now they’re being reactivated and are active again.”
Karim also advised—very bluntly—“Iraq has not worked.” Cobbled together by the British after World War I out of three Ottoman provinces, that issue has bedeviled the country since its founding.
Karim noted that, pretty much since Saddam’s overthrow, Sunni Arabs have repeatedly resorted to violence, because they do not feel adequately represented by the government in Baghdad.
“This Iraq has not worked, since it was created,” he said, recalling the note penned by Iraq’s first king who famously complained that the vast majority of his people had no allegiance to Iraq. “Shias are Shias; Sunnis are Sunnis; and Kurds are Kurds” is how Karim summarized Faisal’s lament, and “it’s still like that.”
Karim noted that in 2006, as a US senator, Joe Biden had written an article calling for a decentralized Iraq, with a weak central government which loosely oversaw three confederate states: Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish—and then sponsored a (non-binding) Senate resolution to that effect. In Karim’s view, that is the only way to address Iraq’s continuing problems.
Of course, the Senator may well become America’s next president.
“A Kurdish leader who served all parts of the greater Kurdistan,” is how Yousif Ismael summarized Karim’s life, in an exchange with Kurdistan 24. “He was no partisan, but a patriot who devoted his life to defending the Kurdish human, cultural, and political rights across Kurdistan.”
As Ismael affirmed, “The Washington Kurdish Institute will continue its work to present the struggles of the Kurds to the United States and will follow the steps of its founder, Dr. Najmaldin Karim.”
Editing by Laurie Mylroie