SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – A police chief in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk has what could be the world’s most dangerous job – fighting both Islamic State and a host of other enemies who have repeatedly tried to assassinate him. He’s the subject of a new documentary by BBC Arabic.
When the militants from Islamic State attacked, the men at the front line called Gen Sarhad Qader for back-up.
The general turned to his team – a police unit in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. “Grab the guns and rocket-propelled grenades,” he told them.
Braced for a long night, they drove into battle. As daybreak brought the front line into view, the militants brought out the mortars.
The general and his men found themselves outgunned. Three were injured. One was killed – or as the Kurds say, martyred.
“I loved and trusted him like a brother,” the general says of the dead man, his aide for 11 years.
Qader pulls together a convoy to reinforce a Peshmerga unit under attack
That’s how long he’s been police chief of Kirkuk. A former Kurdish peshmerga guerrilla who spent years fighting Saddam Hussein’s forces, Qader got the job in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and has held it throughout the ensuing years of turmoil.
Some 245 policemen have been killed under his command, while more than a dozen attempts have been made on his life by bomb, bullet and poison.
He has survived having his soup laced with arsenic, as well as a suicide attack on his police station last year that killed 30 people. His family has paid a heavy price. In 2005, insurgents shot dead his brother, thinking it was him.
His survival is all the more surprising given his practice of leading from the front – in stark contrast to the Iraqi army officers who last June fled Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in civilian clothes. This allowed Islamic State to take the city without a fight – and then to move into towns and villages in the vicinity of Kirkuk.
A Kurdish peshmerga unit search for Islamic State insurgents
Qader’s role stretches the normal definition of policing.
Firing grenades at Islamic State militants, his job is closer to that of a battlefield commander. Arresting a suspected insurgent from a Sunni Arab village, he is on a counter-terrorism mission.
Parleying with a sheikh who serves as a go-between with Islamic State, he plays the tribal elder. Dropping in on a Turkoman militia leader, he practises a version of what his Western counterparts might call community policing.
To his critics, however, Qader is above all a Kurd. Commanding a force that recruits heavily from the Kurdish community, he has been accused of prioritising its interests – a charge he firmly rejects.
The city of Kirkuk is built around a mound, topped with an abandoned citadel. Below the citadel is a river, clogged with garbage, and markets where traders switching between languages as they barter.
Turkomans, Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Christians can all be found here and in the surrounding region of dusty plains, low hills, hardscrabble farming communities, and oilfields tapping into a quarter of Iraq’s estimated reserves.
Rivalries have been intensified by the promise of oil wealth, but also by history.
Saddam Hussein drove the Kurds from Kirkuk and encouraged Arabs to settle in the region. So when the US military invaded, the Kurdish peshmerga helped American troops drive out the remnants of Saddam’s army.
The displaced Kurds began moving back, and their politicians began speaking of Kirkuk as the future capital of an independent Kurdish state, to the alarm of other communities.
As in other parts of Iraq, the local Sunni Arabs provided recruits for the insurgency that followed – but in Kirkuk, their grievances were amplified.
“The Arabs felt like their world was turned upside down overnight,” says Emma Sky, a former British official who administered the province after the US invasion, and now teaches at Yale University.
“They saw themselves as out of jobs, out of security forces [that were] then run by Kurds and Americans. So they felt in a way that they were under two occupations – the American and the Kurdish.”
Reporting from Iraq five years ago, I accompanied Qader’s police unit as they raided Sunni Arab villages in search of militants. Some American troops were still around – but they seemed to be in a hurry to leave.
US officers insisted that Kirkuk was going to be secured by a three-way partnership between the peshmerga, the Shia-Arab-dominated Iraqi army, and the Sunni Arab “Awakening” militia, bankrolled to fight al-Qaeda.
On the raids, however, there were signs of distrust. Fearing tip-offs, the Kurds had kept their plans secret from the local Awakening fighters.
As the Americans withdrew, the Kurds would also clash with the Iraqi army, while the Awakening – starved of wages by Baghdad – disbanded.
The three-way partnership collapsed, and Iraq was on its way to becoming what it is today – one country partitioned in three.
Qader – who is generally known by his first name, Sarhad – says he has worked for the security of all Kirkuk’s citizens. Ironically, this is not a security that he can personally enjoy.
“It has been more than six months since I was here,” he says, on a brief stroll through the city centre. “I wish it was safe so we could come more often.”
Ever wary of potential assassins, the general cuts short his walk and drives off – to spend the night trading bullets with Islamic State.