Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

From Kirkuk Cab Driver to Police Chief

IWPR tails Kirkuk’s police chief to find out what it takes to keep the peace on the city’s tough streets.
By Sirwan Ghareeb

At 10.30 pm, Kirkuk police chief General Sherko Shakir sits with six telephones on his desk, checking round the city's police stations. His guards lurk in the shadows of the street below, their fingers tensed on triggers. The atmosphere at the central police station is permanently on edge.

When a call comes in - “Be on the lookout. We've received news of a car bomb!” - it is just par for the course.

With news of bombs exploding, policemen being killed, civilians getting kidnapped and other random acts of insurgent violence, Shakir is rarely out of the office before midnight.

Leaving the police station, the general’s guards pile into the back of his pick-up truck as he climbs into the driver’s seat.

“I feel more in control this way if we are attacked. The most important thing is not to get confused, especially when you’re driving,” he says, heading off.

As the motorcade pulls up at his home, Shakir looks at his watch and quietly says to his the commander of his guards, “Tonight, we may go out to patrol the checkpoints.”

Shakir graduated from police college in 1960, but says that as a Kurd he was denied any position of power by the former regime. Instead, he was offered a job with the police in the south of Iraq.

Unable to advance in that post, and feeling increasingly frustrated, he bought a car in 1981 and spent the next two decades working as a taxi driver until the coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003.

“Driving a taxi, I was at least able to raise three children right up to the end of their education,” he explains.

While being a cab driver may be a far cry from being chief of police in an ethnically divided city riddled with strife, Shakir is giving it his all.

“Yes, it’s a very dangerous job. But you have to set aside those worries for the sake of your homeland. This country needs me at the moment,” he says.

Dealing with the security threat he faces has required major changes to his lifestyle. His travel to the office is never scheduled in advance, so as to avoid the ambushes that have become an increasingly common occurrence for the police.

As the general leaves his home each morning, the guard stationed at his front door blows a whistle to alert the rest of the team that the boss is on the move. Arriving at the station, the military salute Shakir receives as he approaches raises a small dust storm in front of the police department.

He gives his men a quick once over before he heads inside. “People have to pay attention to their appearance; I like smart appearance and posture,” he notes.

Inside his office, two pictures hang on the wall opposite his desk: one of United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and the other of the interim Iraqi president Ghazi Al-Yawar –General Shakir is in both pictures, shaking the men by the hand.

The six phones on his desk are there for good reason, and ring non-stop with calls from the Kirkuk governorate council, the US-led Coalition, and informants. On top of fielding an endless stream of calls, the general has to deal with numerous visits every day, largely from leaders of local Arab tribes whose members have been accused of attacking police or coalition troops.

And as with every job, staff management takes up a significant part of his time, whether it’s responding to Turkoman police who want to be transferred out of Kirkuk, or Kurdish officers who want to get in.

“I believe the Kurds are pretty sincere in their work here – they don’t have links to the extremist groups. So far, no Kurdish policemen have been accused of helping the insurgents,” said Shakir.

Although Friday is technically a day off, the general spends several hours at his desk, dealing with more problems, including disciplining a number of policemen who have been reported for making false accusations against each other. This is one of the things that angers Shakir. “My other bugbear is tribes defending their members when they have clearly broken the law,” he adds.

As well as dealing with day-to-day outbursts of violence in the city, Kirkuk’s police are currently putting in place a complex plan to protect polling stations during the upcoming election, scheduled for January.

This presents Shakir with perhaps his biggest challenge yet. Will the ambitious plan he is drawing up to keep voters safe actually work? And is the force he has been putting together over the past year up to the job?

His men clearly have faith in him. Echoing the words of former coalition provisional authority head Paul Bremer, one of Shakir’s guards tells IWPR, “If he has been able to handle policing in Kirkuk, he can handle policing for the whole country.”

Sirwan Ghareeb is an IWPR trainee in Kirkuk.