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Iraq governor looks back on troubled tenure

Duraid Kashmoula, who regularly survived attempts on his life, leaves Mosul, the provincial capital, in chaos. Branded a turncoat by militants, he will go into exile when he steps down.

January 22, 2009|Ned Parker

MOSUL, IRAQ — 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.

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