The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Iraq at crossroads, Delhi does an ostrich

Washington, Oct. 9: In less than a week, Iraq will be at the crossroads of its destiny, but New Delhi has completely abdicated its regional, strategic and civilisational responsibilities towards Baghdad and will not even be an observer in the political process there.

For nearly a year, India has had no ambassador at its embassy in Baghdad, which was already being run on shoestring human resources and manpower.

It is not that diplomats are hard to find for being assigned to Baghdad: several Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers have volunteered for the assignment.

In the middle of this year, a diplomat with recent experience in the region was chosen as ambassador. But, according to sources in New Delhi, no one in South Block wants to take the responsibility for posting him to strife-torn Baghdad. Hence, amazingly, an announcement of his appointment has been hanging fire for months.

On October 15, Iraqis will vote in a historic referendum on a new constitution, which will determine the future of their country after its occupation in 2003 by the US and a few allies.

The Arab League fears that a civil war could erupt in Iraq any moment and that next Saturday’s referendum is a precursor of chaos in the country. The pan-Arab body has sent a 10-man team to Baghdad, led by Ahmed bin Heli, its assistant secretary-general for political affairs, for a first-hand impression of the impending crisis.

The Americans, on the other hand, are putting on a brave face and hoping that the draft constitution will be approved in the referendum, laying the basis for a new sovereign government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has accused Iran in recent days of meddling in Iraq’s violence, threatening to draw Tehran into the region’s volatile mess.

India’s inexplicable resolve at this crucial time to bury its head ' like the proverbial ostrich ' in the sands of Bharatpur, far away from the Iraqi desert, belies tall assurances given to the world community by external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh of New Delhi’s role in restoring Iraq’s sovereignty and prosperity.

In the latest of such assurances, Singh told an international conference on Iraq in Brussels on June 22 that “India would like to see a stable, peaceful, prosperous, united and democratic Iraq”.

He assured the international community then that “our Prime Minister has conveyed to (Iraq’s) Prime Minister (Ibrahim Al) Jaafari that Iraq could, if it wished, draw upon India’s experience in drafting a Constitution for its multi-cultural society. Our own experience as a multi-cultural and multi-religious democracy is that Constitution-drafting is a critically important process that needs to be inclusive in order to ensure its wide acceptance and long-term legitimacy.”

If any Iraqi believed the external affairs minister’s promises, he must be feeling pretty let down now as he worries about what lies ahead for blood-soaked Iraq.

For a while this year, India appeared serious about helping the people of Iraq. New Delhi sent a special envoy, C.R. Gharekhan, India’s former ambassador to the UN, on a trip to Baghdad in May.

In wide-ranging meetings, Gharekhan promised all help from India for “a process that would lead the Iraqi people to taking full control of their destiny”.

He also outlined details of $20 million in Indian assistance “to the Iraqi people” in response to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s flash appeal of April 2003.

But soon afterwards, India went into a coma on Iraq. Its small mission in Baghdad is now headed by a charge d’affaires.

The previous ambassador, B.B. Tyagi, has been posted in New Delhi, but even before he formally gave up his post in Baghdad, he spent considerable time in neighbouring Jordan for security reasons and then in India on leave and for consultations.

South Block’s delay in announcing an ambassador has also spread severe resentment among the ranks of its junior officers because of its implication that junior officers are expendable and can be left to face risks in Baghdad.

The charge d’affaires, who has been holding the fort in Iraq, is from IFS-B cadre, while the ambassador, whose announcement is pending, is a regular IFS officer.

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