For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.
While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.
Just one hundred miles away from Kirkuk lies Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. I was in Mosul a few years ago, but I was strongly advised not to visit this trip: The city has become too dangerous. It remains a hotbed both of Baathist insurgency and al-Qaeda. Recent visitors—both Kurdish and Arab—say that it is in a deplorable state. The problem is not lack of resources, but rather poor management. While Kirkuk spent 96 percent of the money allocated to it by the central government, Mosul spent only four percent because its government simply cannot get the job done (the government funds provinces with sequential payments; when funds at hand are spent, governors can apply for their province’s next installment). While roads are paved in Kirkuk, Mosul still deals with open sewage and crumbling infrastructure. As the temperature regularly climbs above 100 degrees across Iraq, Kirkukis enjoy ice cream and air conditioning. The Moslawis swelter.
How to explain the difference? Certainly, Najmaldin is more competent than his predecessors and remains squeaky clean, a rarity in a nation where corruption has since the 1980s been the norm. There is another explanation which Iraqis offer, however, that will not be popular among Americans: David Petraeus.
Iraqis assess Petraeus’s legacy far differently than do many Americans. While commander of the 101st Airborne, Petraeus was effectively king of Mosul. He pursued three main policies during his tenure:
- First, he sought to increase trade with Syria on the theory that such trade would benefit Mosul’s economy. While commander, he famously bragged to a visiting American delegation about how much he had augmented cross-border trade, even as that trade facilitated an influx of Syrians and others who did not consider Iraqi security an objective to promote.
- Second, he sought to counter de-Baathification by appointing senior Baathists to both government and security positions.
- Lastly, he sought to appease some of the more radical Islamists, often through creative use of some of the funds at his disposal.
For a time, Petraeus’s strategy appeared to work: So long as the money flowed, there was quiet. But as soon as such funds dried up, all hell broke loose. It was a myth held too highly among some in the army that only Baathists had the capacity to manage; the fact of the matter is that many Baathists retained their municipal positions not because of competence but because of politics. Scores of perfectly competent Iraqis, meanwhile, did not compromise themselves morally in order to work under Saddam’s regime. Some of these men took jobs in Kirkuk. Alas, many of the men to whom Petraeus reached out remain entrenched in Mosul, enjoying the perks of titles but not having the capacity to manage. Several are actively engaged in terrorism. The misery to which they condemn Mosul keeps grievance alive. Blaming Baghdad is not an option: In both Mosul and Kirkuk, Baghdad’s influence is more theoretical than real. Both cities have de facto autonomy by distance to implement the programs they desire. In neither city is the ruling Da’wa Party strong, and yet one succeeds where the other fails.
While Petraeus rehabilitated Baathists and Islamists, Kirkuk—the city which was by all accounts supposed to be Iraq’s flashpoint—purged Baathists and refused to pay off extremists. Today, the difference between short-term appeasement and more principled governance is on full display in the juxtaposition between the two cities. Petraeus may be a patriot and a well-regarded military tactician, but when it came to civilian affairs and, indeed, those living with his signature counterinsurgency policies, his reputation may be less well-deserved.