Beginning of a new chapter in Indo-Iraq relations
Is India inching toward making a post-war factious Iraq one of her key strategic partner in the Middle East?
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s fairly successful trip to Baghdad last month raises the possibility of New Delhi reopening its high-level diplomatic contacts with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s administration. After all, both the nations have a long history of thriving partnership that goes far beyond the tumultuous days of the Gulf War.
Iraq, holding the world’s second largest proven oil reserves was a major energy source for New Delhi and more importantly remained the biggest market for project exports as well as export of chemicals, commercial goods and foodstuff from India till the United Nations imposed sanctions in the early 1990s.
Those were the golden days of bilateral bonhomie that not only prompted New Delhi to consistently oppose the American invasion of Iraq but also emboldened the then foreign minister, the late Inder Gujral, to undertake a whirlwind tour of Iraqi occupied Kuwait and thereafter Baghdad at a time when Saddam Hussein has already become a pariah of the international community.
The Foreign Office archive in New Delhi must be holding on to that famous framed image of Gujral embracing Saddam during that hyped rescue mission carried out to evacuate the stranded Indian expatriate population. But times have changed and changed for the worse.
As rightly pointed out by Foreign Minister Khurshid, the work on the ground can begin in right earnest only when safety and security of the Indian lives and properties can be guaranteed. But then, viable peace in Iraq remains elusive with sectarian violence continuing to be a real threat to the country’s internal security scenario, its stability and sovereignty as restoring some semblance of normalcy in the erstwhile land of Mesopotamia has become a tall order.
Unfortunately, throughout the last decade, Iraq was used by multifarious terror organizations as a laboratory for honing their skills in mass killing. From the extensive use of improvised explosive devices to achieving perfection in brazen suicide attacks and acquiring sophistication in the placement of car as well as roadside bombs, a lawless and battered Iraq has provided hands-on experience to the foot soldiers of terrorism since the outbreak of first Gulf War. Even though Washington withdrew its combat troops from Iraq last December after squandering $ 3 trillion, leaving the oil rich nation at the hands of a ragtag all Iraqi security forces, there has been no sign of any let up in fratricidal tension.
On the contrary militias opposed to Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s government have revived their fierce campaign against the country’s elected leadership and conducts guerrilla style attacks on civilian targets intermittently. Remnants of the dreaded Al-Qaeda continues to regroup in the western Iraqi provinces bordering Syria while the exacerbation of ethnic rivalry has given birth to fighting forces indulging in heinous crimes like smuggling, trafficking of contraband weapons and drugs trading.
Given the complexity of the ground realities in Iraq, the Indian government is indeed caught in a catch-22 situation on the issue of evolving a judicious policy for dealing with the present administration. While it is clear that the Iraqi security apparatus is pathetically ill-equipped to curb extremism with an iron hand, New Delhi is in no position to let go of the opportunity to re-establish its spheres of influence prevalent in the Saddam era or beyond.
The Indian policymakers will surely look forward to enhancing the country’s politico-economic clout in this crucial energy corridor. Since the Iraqi armed forces are grappling with organizational and infrastructural deficiencies, the foreign office mandarins in New Delhi might be tempted to offer training support for Iraqi soldiers on a large scale. In fact, Indian military instructors have a good understanding of the Iraqi psyche, having worked with the Iraqi armed forces previously during Saddam Hussein’s tenure. Perhaps, to keep extremism in multi-confessional Iraq at bay, New Delhi remains the best bet for the international community to help analyze the thinking of the Iraqi people, so essential to explore the root of their unique sense of patriotism as well as self-esteem, which arises out of a rich history of secular and enlightened credentials.
This gigantic failure to discern the Iraqi mindset has had a huge impact on West Asian geopolitics, accentuating regional instability in the process and eventually transforming Iraq into a front for militant extremism that has spread into other parts of the region.
Furthermore, New Delhi will be required to perform a fine balancing act to keep the leadership in Tehran in good humor as well because of two principal reasons. Firstly, the Iraqis voted for a Shiite led government on the first given opportunity and the post-war polarization in Iraqi society has virtually ensured that the Shiite population drifts more toward theocratic Iran psychologically.
Secondly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has invited Indian companies to invest in Shia dominated southern Iraq in order to avoid the risk of being targeted by terror groups. Tehran has already developed major stakes in this overwhelmingly Shiite southern region by deploying its intelligence operatives in mufti — within the Iraqi Army as well as Shiite militias operating in the south — and encouraging private Iranian investment. It would therefore be naïve for India to ignore Ayatollah’s Iran in its quest for making Iraq the country’s primary strategic energy partner even though Iraq has recently replaced Iran as India’s second largest crude oil supplier.
Thus, diplomatic investment on Hassan Rouhani’s new regime can give a guaranteed return of safety for Indian companies seeking to exploit the huge potential that Iraq offers in sectors like oil and gas exploration, petro-chemicals, information technology, engineering and infrastructure.
• Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta based journalist and columnist.