| Former Indian oil minister Ram Naik with his Iraqi counterpart, Amer Rashid, Baghdad 2002
The day Saddam Hussein’s statue was being toppled in Baghdad by American-inspired Iraqis, an old man in Umm Qasr, southern Iraq, was telling an Indian journalist what a fan he is of “Mitabh”.
“Before the Iran war there were so many Indians here”, he pointed in the direction of the tall cranes that marked out where Iraq’s only deep-sea port is. “They worked there with us.”
Talal Ahmed, 58, is a port worker who had lived in Umm Qasr through three wars. The last of the Indians he had seen before he came across this sahafi — journalist — was towards the end of that eight-year-long war. But with his other friends in the town, he had continued catching up with Mithabh and Mithun — Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty — the best known Indian celluloid heroes in Iraq on video cassettes that still do the rounds.
A little north of Umm Qasr, just across the border with Kuwait, is Safwan, the first town to fall the night American and British forces rolled into Iraq. Some two weeks later, as a convoy of Kuwait Red Crescent Society vehicles carrying aid entered the town, something close to a riot broke out. This time an old lady, spotting a man from “al Hind” — India — in the crowd, guided him away from the violence and into safety.
In Baghdad, a week after the Iraqi capital had fallen to coalition forces, a group of taxi drivers offered to escort a shelterless Indian to their homes just so that they will have a “friend” to talk to and show him how they lived and how they survived the dreadful bombing of the city. Faras, whose forefathers had migrated to Iraq, now wants to migrate to India with his family. Many of the taxi drivers believed that Saddam Hussein was still alive and the day was not far when he would inevitably return.
Also in Baghdad, the caretaker of the deserted Indian embassy building recalled how a youth convinced his comrades of the Saddam Fedayeen not to attack the mansion that housed the al Hind offices. That was when the forces of the United States of America and the Saddam Fedayeen were skirmishing in parts of the city and the chatter of machine gunfire and columns of smoke from bombarded buildings continued to embattle Baghdad.
Despite a decade and more since the last Indian expatriate left Iraq, Indians enjoy a goodwill among Iraqis that is easily evident. There are Indians in Kuwait who still recall that they were largely untouched by the Iraqi army when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Iraqi army had in fact helped Indians to escape from the Gulf region through Iraq and Baghdad.
As pressure mounts on New Delhi now to despatch military forces in aid of the Anglo-American occupiers of Iraq, India is in danger of frittering away a goodwill that has been cultivated over many years of business, social and, indeed, even military ties. Engineers from Indian public sector companies have built dams and barrages in Iraq. Iraqi army officials were trained in the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.
The American request to India to send troops is also understood to have come accompanied with the promise that any contingent of the Indian military that may be sent there will work under its own flag and not under the Stars and Stripes. While that is of some comfort in Delhi in that it will be a sign that India is not kowtowing to American interests, it raises the prospect of an alienation from Iraqis that any foreign force will find difficult to contend with.
Late last month, just after the Americans restored a World War I cemetery of the British in Al Kut, eastern Iraq, as a mark of respect to their colleagues from England, Iraqis desecrated the site. They were angry that an alien force should hoist its flag in their country. The cemetery — as coincidence would have it — was of a British Indian force of “Hindoos” and “Sikhs” that was vanquished in 1916 by the Turks.
Even now in Baghdad, the memory of the American flag masking the statue of Saddam Hussein minutes before it was toppled is a symbol of national humiliation for many Iraqis who have no love lost for Saddam Hussein.
The team from the Pentagon that reaches New Delhi next week will be seeking to answer Indian queries on just what it would mean for New Delhi to send troops to Iraq. The Americans have indicated, too, that they would also welcome a noncombatant force from India. India was aware of the American request since early May. The Americans had invited India to participate in a “working group” briefing of about 14-15 countries in London on May 8. India did not send a representative, but the government was given a detailed briefing.
Since that meeting, Poland, Spain and Italy have sent, or are in the process of sending, troops to Iraq. Given the goodwill that India enjoys among the Iraqis, an Indian presence will no doubt give legitimacy to the stabilization force. That, however, could be at the cost of a people-to-people relationship that has withstood governments and wars.
Critics of the occupation of Iraq have already raised the possibility that the foreign forces could be entrapped in a “permanent war”. It is more than two months since Baghdad has fallen, but there is no sign yet of a government taking shape that will be able to administer Iraq even with American help. Ahmed Chalabi, who was paratrooped into Iraq in the wash of the invasion, does not enjoy any credibility. The Shias — the largest religious sect in Iraq — who were expected to join in the American war effort against Saddam Hussein, have threatened to turn against the Americans. And the Kurds are interested enough only in establishing their own homeland in the north.
The American ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, said on Friday that Indian forces in Iraq will not be warring alongside the Americans. In a war-ravaged country where lawlessness rules, it is difficult to see what a military force can do apart from putting down mobs. A non-combatant Indian team of doctors and engineers would be a token presence, and not enough for the military demands that the occupation of Iraq is making on the Americans and the British.
Some 1,30,000 troops of the American 3rd Infantry Division and more from the US Marines, and about 40,000 British troops were involved in the war in Iraq. It was assessed as the war progressed towards Baghdad that elements of the 3rd Infantry Division would be able to head back home by mid-June. That possibility is now slim. Since the fall of Baghdad, the US forces have been reinforced by the 4th Infantry Division, one of the largest US army divisions equipped with the most modern military hardware. But that is neither enough to soothe Iraqi tempers, nor are they so intimidating that dissenters will be scared away.
Early last week, the US forces launched their biggest post-war strike codenamed Operation Peninsula Strike. Some 40 Americans have been killed in the last month and a half and the strike on Friday killed 70 Iraqis who are alleged to be “remnants of the Saddam regime” in Balad, northwest of Baghdad.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war”, goes an old Arab saying. Iraq and west Asia are fraught with possibilities of a “permanent war” that can see the Americans trapped in the region for much longer. That is why, militarily — and not just diplomatically and economically — an Indian troop presence is so sought after. Just so that the pressure on India mounts, it is being pitted in a competition with Pakistan. Musharraf intends sending about two brigades — nearly 6,000 troops — to Iraq, and this is being interpreted for India as the possibility that Pakistan may yet prove to be a better friend of the US.
The Indian military’s long experience in counter-insurgency — essentially a policing role for any professional army — is among the more important reasons for which the US wants India’s presence in Iraq. With an army such as India’s — with its vast experience in civilian-military duties — to provide it with “rear area security”, the US force can be freer in their combat role. That will reduce the Indian military to being cannonfodder. A self-respecting army deserves better.