Kurdish Doctor Leaves U.S. For Iraqi Politics

Dr. Najmaldeen Karim is going back to Iraq to run in the 2010 elections. The Washington D.C.-area neurosurgeon fled his homeland in 1975. Now he's leaving a comfortable life in the U.S. to try for a seat in the Iraqi parliament representing the Kurds of Kirkuk, one of Iraq's ethnic flash points.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iraq is preparing for elections despite increasing violence there. A bomb struck central Baghdad today, killing at least 18 people. That comes after yesterdays attacks killed dozens in Baghdad. None of that is stopping candidates from standing in the national elections that are planned for March 7th.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And those candidates include the man well meet next. He left a comfortable life in America to run for Iraqs parliament. Hes running in the northern city of Kirkuk, which sits on a kind of political fault line, between rival ethnic groups. NPRs Quil Lawrence sent us this story.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Azadi Teaching Hospital overlooks the city of Kirkuk from the Kurdish section on the northern side of town, but the emergency room here serves Arabs, Turkomans, everyone in the city. Its a sensible place for Dr. Najmaldeen Karim to start a campaign to represent Kirkuk in the Iraqi parliament. Thirty-five years ago he was a guerilla medic when the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein collapsed. He fled to America, where he became a successful neurosurgeon in Maryland. He raised a family there, but never lost his connection to the city of Kirkuk.

On a tour of the hospital, Karim looks in on a young boy who is unconscious after a car crash. Across the room is a local judge nearly killed by a car bomb. The hospital sees 23,000 patients a month. Karim keeps shaking his head. Theres no chemotherapy, no angioplasty, no CAT scan.

Dr. NAJMALDEEN KARIM (Neurosurgeon): Its unfortunate, because Kirkuk is so much rich in oil and everything. And if you have a head injury and you are brought to this hospital, they wouldnt know whats wrong with you.

LAWRENCE: Throughout his years away, Karim remained part of Iraqs Kurdish nationalist movement. He managed to stay neutral through the vicious internal disputes and is now a rare commodity in Iraqi politics well-known politician with a clean reputation.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Kirkukis are fed up with the two main Kurdish parties. And thats probably why both have urged Dr. Karim to run. Iraqs Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, has loaned him a bullet-proof car. As the driver races through the city, Karim gazes out the window.

Dr. KARIM: The U.S. has spent what - hundreds of billions of dollars here in Iraq. Iraqi government doesn't know its priorities. Its so corrupt, so inept, its almost hopeless. You would expect a little more from the U.S. putting all that money - how could you become loved in this country if you (unintelligible) by giving services, not just corrupting people.

LAWRENCE: At 60, Karim is well known to a certain generation of Kirkukis because his father was a famous imam here. He is also known by his first name, Najmaldeen, to doctors like Niaz Akhmed Amin(ph), the hospital director.

Dr. NIAZ AKHMED AMIN: When I was a student in medical college, I hear about his name. Its a honor to me to see Dr. Najmaldeen.

LAWRENCE: But like most Kirkukis, Amin has no time for politicians.

Dr. AMIN: The people here in Kirkuk, they look for somebody to improve their life. I think that people in Kirkuk, they will be more happy if Dr. Najmaldeen come back to hospital work as a doctor and do his job.

LAWRENCE: Walking around Kirkuks central market, the attitude towards politics mirrors the chilly, drizzling weather.

Mr. ABDUL HASEM SADUN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The election makes no difference, says Abdul Hasen Sadun(ph), a Turkoman shopkeeper. The candidates are only serving themselves, not people, he says. Ducking into the warmth of a tea shop, several Kurdish laborers are wolfing down steaming bowls of white beans and eggplant with rice. An older customer says he remembers Najmaldeen Karims father, the famous imam.

Mr. AMIN JAFF: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: He is from a noble family, and there is no one more deserving of a seat in parliament, says Amin Jaff(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

LAWRENCE: But most of the younger people in a barbershop down the street draw a blank at Karims name. They are skeptical that anyone entering politics can help Kirkuk.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Whether he is the son of a famous Imam or the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, says one barber, he'll still be a big thief like the rest of them. Dr. Karim says he is aware of the atmosphere, and he says he is not under any illusions about single handedly changing Iraq.

Dr. KARIM: I think I can contribute to, you know, improving the situation. Even a small contribution I think can help. If it can help one person, I think its still different, its still better than not doing anything.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we have some more details on todays suicide bombing in Baghdad. This time it was a car bomber. The target was a police crime lab in the central part of the city. The explosion killed at least, 18 people. This is the latest in a string of attacks that have struck the capital since last August. And the bombings stand as a challenge to Iraqi officials who want to show they have made the country safer and who are running for reelection in about six weeks.

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