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One eye on Iraq, another on TV
- Diplomats in Delhi embassy stare at uncertain future

New Delhi, May 5: Diplomats at the Iraq embassy are waiting and watching the situation in their country as much as the television sets in office.

The huge portrait of Saddam Hussein at the reception has disappeared but the diplomats and other staff troop in daily at 10 am to keep the embassy going.

Not that any official work needs to be done as visitors are few these days. And those who drop by without an appointment are unwelcome.

So why are the diplomats there' “We represent our country Iraq and the Iraqi people,” charge d’ affaires Adday O. Al-Sakab said.

His remarks carried the implicit suggestion that the Iraqi officials in the New Delhi embassy should not be associated with the Saddam regime.

Al-Sakab, however, is unsure what fate awaits him and his colleagues. Everything will depend on the new regime in Baghdad, whether they want the staff to continue or not, he said.

Al-Sakab was quick to scoff at reports that they were thinking of seeking political asylum in India. “They (the reports) are all rumours. People can write anything they want about Iraq these days.”

“We diplomats are like loyal soldiers. We have to defend and look after our country’s interest,” he said.

Looking after the country’s interest, nowadays, means nothing more than watching TV. CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera or some other Arabic channel are all welcome as the diplomats gather news about their country from the television now.

At the embassy reception, two diplomats sit glued to a television, watching a recording of the Iraqi ambassador at the UN Security Council stoutly defending Baghdad’s case before the Iraq war began.

Another sits across from them at the telephone counter and stares at the duo. Inside, smaller groups sit huddled before more television sets. They all look grim.

All they want is news about Iraq and the only way to get it now is through the electronic and print media.

Like the rest of his staff, Al-Sakab, too, sits in front of a television. But he is not watching news; a Manchester United vs Real Madrid encounter at the UEFA Cup in Old Trafford flickers on his set.

“For us, it is just a wait-and-watch situation now,” he said. Normality in Iraq is his only wish, but he is seasoned enough to realise it won’t come in a hurry.

His only consolation is his wife and three children who are with him here in Delhi. But Al Sakab is worried about his brothers and sisters in Baghdad and its suburbs.

“I have not been able to talk to them for more than two weeks,” he said. In war-ravaged Iraq, the only channel of communication is satellite telephone. For a diplomat in Delhi, that is no easy option.

Al-Sakab first came to Delhi as counsellor eight months ago. Two months ago, he was left in charge of the mission when Iraqi ambassador Salah Al Mukhtar left for Vietnam on a new assignment.

The embassy now has six diplomats and a number of support staff, both Iraqi and Indian. The national capital has nearly 120 Iraqi families.

Many of them are small traders or teachers at an Iraqi school in Safdarjung Enclave or students at colleges and universities in Delhi and elsewhere in the country.

Whether he likes it or not, Al-Sakab is now patriarch to the Iraqi community in India. “They keep calling me to find out the latest news in Iraq. Like us, most are eager for normality to return there so that we can all go back home,” he said.

Before the war, the embassy, especially its consular section, used to be busy. At least, 40 visas were granted every day. “Now, nobody wants to go to Iraq. They all know about the war and the trouble there. Neither pilgrims nor businessmen are willing to risk their lives by visiting Baghdad or other Iraqi cities,” Al-Sakab said.

Normality or no, finances don’t appear to be a problem for the embassy. “We are organising the money and, so far, we have managed well,” Al Sakab said. He emphasised that help from India or other countries was neither offered nor required.

According to sources, much of the embassy’s funds come from the large number of visas issued before the war.

Al-Sakab, who is still “at my desk every morning and stay here till 4 in the afternoon”, has not been completely forgotten. Though he last met South Block officials 10 days ago, the invites to national day celebrations of and receptions at other embassies continue to pour in.

“The moment they (diplomats of other countries) see me, they all rush forward, eager to learn the latest from me about Iraq,” Al-Sakab said.

“But I tell them I know as much about the developments as you do. And whatever more you want to know, please watch the television. At least, that is where I get my information from these days.”

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