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'The question is, when the war is finally over, will anyone feel safe enough to go home?'

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A Shi'ite fighter sits on a military vehicle in the town of Hamrin in Salahuddin province. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

A Shi'ite fighter sits on a military vehicle in the town of Hamrin in Salahuddin province. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

REUTERS

A Shi'ite fighter sits on a military vehicle in the town of Hamrin in Salahuddin province. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

Some 60 miles from the capital of Iraq's oil-rich province of Kirkuk, a battle is raging for control of Tikrit. It might seem a hopeful sign that Baghdad is finally attempting to win back a key city from the control of Isil, the jihadi group that swept into a great swathe of Iraq last year. But Kirkuk's governor, Najmaldin Karim, is not optimistic about the long-term outcome.

It is not the military consequences of the fighting that worry him, but the political ones. "What are you going to do after you liberate these areas... are the people who fled from there going to be able to go back?" In other words, is the war in Iraq now so pervasively sectarian that Sunnis can no longer accept rule by a Shia Muslim-dominated central government?

Before the self-proclaimed Islamic State captured Tikrit on 11 June last year, the city had a population of about 260,000, almost all of them Sunni. The offensive to drive out Isis that is now under way is very much a Shia affair with 30,000 soldiers, half from the regular army and half Shia militias.

Significantly, it is taking place with the support of Iran and without the backing of US air strikes. Iran and the US may have a common enemy in Isil, but in Iraq they are fighting two very different wars.

Dr Karim says there is no alternative for the Baghdad government but to rely on the Shia militiamen. "The army is pretty well incapable of taking on major operations, while the militias are better equipped and probably have better fighters," he told 'The Independent' in an interview at his Kirkuk office.

He said the largely Shia army that disintegrated last year when it lost northern and western Iraq to Isil "wasn't a real army, but a corrupt bunch of guys at checkpoints who had no training". Nor does he think the situation is much better today. Kirkuk is relatively safe because it is defended by Kurdish Peshmerga, he says, but even they suffered heavy losses when Isil broke through the nearby front line on January 30.

Success

"It was a rainy, foggy night and our people were too lax," he admitted. Dr Karim's career is a blend of professional success and Kurdish nationalist commitment. Born 65 years ago in Kirkuk, he trained as a doctor then became a Peshmerga, or fighter, in 1973, a couple of years before a Kurdish rebellion against Baghdad collapsed after the US and Iran cynically withdrew support. After that defeat, Dr Karim accompanied the exiled Kurdish leader, Mulla Mustafa, to Washington, and remained there for 30 years as both a highly regarded neurosurgeon and a lobbyist for the Kurdish cause.

He recalls giving evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 1990 about Saddam Hussein's genocide against Kurds. But the administration of the day, six weeks before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, asserted that Saddam was "a force for moderation".

When I last saw Dr Karim two years ago, he was realistically sceptical and even contemptuous of the capacity of Baghdad to fight the growing threat from Isil and other jihadi groups. But he was also confident and enthusiastic about his achievement in developing Kirkuk city and the surrounding province.

These days, he looks worn down and is gloomy about the future. Kirkuk may be safe from Isil attack, but it is filled with signs of calamity. In the past year some 350,000 displaced people, almost all Sunni Arabs running for their lives, have swamped the city which previously had a population of 950,000. And the money has run out. The violence has been accompanied by a collapse in the price of oil - which Kirkuk is now unable to export.

Before Isil swept in, Kirkuk used to send 150,000 barrels a day of crude to the Baiji refinery north of Tikrit; but that complex has been at the centre of a battle for months. Now, in the heart of the great Kirkuk oilfields, shops are reduced to selling plastic containers filled with black market petrol.

"It has been terrible," said Dr Karim. "It is not just a matter of expelling Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isil] from Tikrit and Mosul.

"We are not receiving any funding from Baghdad - nothing for reconstruction or the IDPs (internally displaced persons) using our schools, water and electricity." (© Independent News Service)

Independent News Service