Iraq governor looks back on troubled tenure
The governor of Nineveh province, a man who drives around with hand grenades in the cup holders of his SUV, is proud that he survived his term. He can’t point to much else as a legacy.
This provincial capital is a shambles, a sea of gray concrete buildings, with police and army checkpoints everywhere, thunderous explosions almost every day. Services are nonexistent. The Sunni Arabs and the Kurds who share the province are caught up in a fierce competition for control of its land.
Fair or not, Gov. Duraid Kashmoula is a symbol of all that has gone wrong here in Mosul.
Some call the Arab governor a puppet of the Kurdish parties that came to dominate the province’s political life; others charitably call him a brave but unqualified man who stumbled into his job and whose time has passed.
During his 4 1/2 years as governor, Sunni militant groups branded him a turncoat and launched a campaign against him and those closest to him. He survived countless assassination attempts; others weren’t so lucky. His 17-year-old son was assassinated in September 2004. His nephew at the end of 2005. His brother in late 2006. Nine cousins slain. Seventeen police bodyguards killed.
Kashmoula, 65, says he would make the same choices, even if he knew the price he would pay.
“I feel pain,” he says, “but I have faith this is God’s will.”
No longer safe in his birthplace, he will leave for exile in the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan after his successor is picked by a newly elected provincial council. He will leave behind the city of his loved ones, his memories and his dead.
During the early days of the U.S. occupation, Mosul was hailed as a success in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But by late 2004, many Sunnis had revolted against the new order and announced a boycott of January 2005 provincial elections. The snub handed the government to Nineveh’s Kurdish minority, and further alienated Arab parties, who escalated their violence.
When his fellow Arabs shunned the political process, Kashmoula stepped into the breach. Benefiting from his family’s reputation for opposing Hussein and the clan’s long-standing friendship with the Kurds, he became governor in July 2004 after his predecessor and cousin, Usama Kashmoula, was assassinated while driving to Baghdad.
“I’m a safety valve for this city,” said Duraid Kashmoula, a onetime seller of auto spare parts. “I look equally at Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- all of them are equal.”
As the Sunni majority seeks to claim what it sees as its rightful place in Nineveh’s government in elections Jan. 31, Kashmoula cautions that there is much it can learn from him in its quest for office.
“Anyone who comes to this post and has an enmity toward an ethnicity will fail,” he advises them.
It is an overcast morning in Mosul as Kashmoula, wearing a corduroy sport coat and a multicolored tie, lugs a nicked Kalashnikov assault rifle into his armored Land Cruiser. His bodyguard and driver do the same. The vehicle, one in a convoy of identical white SUVs filled with a mostly olive-clad Kurdish security detail, races through Mosul and pulls into the walled governor’s compound.
Kashmoula walks into the building, nearly empty on a holiday. The few guards stamp their feet hard in a martial salute. He limps up the stairs and nods. His thinning frizzy hair and his bushy eyebrows give him the air of someone who is perpetually rumpled.
He plops down in his leather chair. A gilded eagle, Iraq’s national symbol, looms from the brick wall behind him. Kashmoula taps on a buzzer for an assistant to bring him the first of the half a dozen cigarettes he’ll smoke that hour. He puckers his lips and inhales.
“I have given enough for this country. I served four years in Mosul in difficult times,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
If not for the assassination of his cousin, he would have carried on with his life as a farmer and seller of car parts. His family enjoyed a reputation for opposing Hussein and had famously shielded Kurds from an angry Arab mob in the late 1960s. He had served in the army and been dismissed years before, retiring to the quiet life of a merchant.
Nothing had marked him for prominence, but Kashmoula decided to put his name forward to replace his cousin and was chosen by the provincial council. Even Kashmoula is stunned by how difficult his time in office was.
“We were surprised,” he says. “The people started to turn on us and spread rumors that the Kurds occupied the province and we were collaborating with the Kurds.”
Sunni fighters launched a revolt in November 2004 and the police abandoned their posts. U.S. forces and Kurdish troops fought for months to reassert control. At the same time, Iraq’s Sunni religious leaders called for a boycott of the country’s first post-Hussein elections in January.
But Kashmoula, already in power at the time, ignored the call and decided to run with the Kurdish-led coalition, which won 31 seats in the 41-member provincial council because of the Arab boycott. Through that winter, the governor and a few Nineveh officials camped out in their seat of power with rifles, supported by U.S. forces, fearful that the building would fall to the insurgents.
“We served the city and we gave a blood tax,” Kashmoula says before sipping tea from a thimble-sized glass.
The governor tells of a bomb that lifted his armored vehicle off the ground this Christmas as he toured the city to visit Christians. His SUV slammed down, and the force of the landing broke his driver’s legs.
“I stepped out of the car. And wiped off the dust. I am lucky,” he says, his eyebrows raised. “I sent off the wounded and then headed to church.”
In the fall, Kashmoula was walking through his building’s parking lot when a Volkswagen detonated, shooting a fireball into the sky. Kashmoula watched the flames and debris rain down around him.
“The world can want to bury you, but if God doesn’t accept it, then nothing will happen. I have faith. When my life is over, I will die, whether by a car bomb or in my bed,” he says. “We are born to die.”
He says he has met his goals. He held his government together when the social order collapsed. But he couldn’t end the violence, create jobs, restore electricity or heal Arab-Kurdish tensions.
He doesn’t mention that he can’t win again. Instead, he says he is tired and has sacrificed enough.
He praises his Kurdish deputy, Kasro Goran, whom many considered the real power in his government. But it is time to say goodbye. His friends warn that he will die if he stays in Mosul, the place where he says he tried to live in harmony with Arabs and Kurds.
So he will go to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, where the ethnic group’s yellow starburst flags are more plentiful than the national flag and where his native tongue is the second language. Irbil is home now too, he says. There, he will rebuild the library he lost when the house he built more than 30 years ago was set ablaze.
“I will stay home and read big stacks of books,” he says unbowed, thumbing worry beads. “Irbil is part of Iraq.”
Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.