New Delhi, June 18: India is counting almost solely on a global humanitarian agency to track down 40 nationals abducted in Iraq by militants, hobbled by the limitations of its stretched diplomatic establishment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest foreign policy test yet.
Iraq’s Red Crescent – as the International Red Cross is known in Islamic nations – is leading the search for the Indian construction workers captured by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul that has been seized by an al Qaida splinter group.
The ministry of external affairs, which confirmed the kidnappings on Wednesday afternoon, said it was unclear who was behind the abductions that the government was unaware of till late yesterday when the Red Crescent informed the Indian embassy in Baghdad.
But the president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, Yaseen Ahmad Abbas, told The Telegraph that his agency was convinced the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terror group that has grabbed large chunks of Iraq’s territory in lightning strikes over the past 10 days, is responsible.
“It can be no other group – they (the ISIS) control the area,” Abbas said in an interview over phone from Baghdad. “We hope to be able to find, by tomorrow, some trace of the Indians.”
The workers -- employed by Baghdad-based firm Tariq Noor Al Huda Co. – were working at the Mosul Stadium, a popular football venue in Iraq’s second-largest city, when they were abducted, Abbas said.
In Punjab, the sister of a youth who is among the 40 hostages said her brother had called her on Sunday to say that he and several others had been kidnapped and their captors were planning to hand them over to “some other authority”. It was not clear how he could make the phone call while being held captive. His sister has not been able to reach him since.
The abductions have thrust Indian diplomacy into the middle of an exploding civil war in Iraq that New Delhi would rather follow from the sidelines. India issued its first statement on the Iraq crisis only on Monday, even though over 100 nationals were trapped in the central Iraq region where the ISIS has gained territory from the Iraqi army over the past week.
“It is with deep, deep sadness that we would like to inform you that 40 Indian workers in Mosul have been kidnapped,” Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said on Wednesday afternoon.
The Indian government and embassy, Akbaruddin said, have not received any phone call from any organisation either claiming responsibility for the abductions or demanding ransom. The ISIS is known to capture civilians as an extortion tool to fund its terror raids.
Former Indian ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy, who ended his term there just earlier this year, flew to Baghdad tonight to assist current ambassador Ajay Kumar in coordinating evacuation and search efforts. Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj spoke with relatives of some of the kidnapping victims, Akbaruddin said. National security adviser Ajit Doval also met senior foreign ministry officials to discuss the abductions.
But the foreign ministry refused to share any further details – suggesting instead that much about the abductions remained unclear and hinting that its own source of information was primarily humanitarian agencies working in Iraq.
For Prime Minister Modi, who came to power on a campaign that pitched him as a strong, decisive leader not just domestically but in international relations, handling the abductions will pose a challenge because of India’s limited intelligence resources in Iraq.
Till Wednesday night, India did not even know exactly how many of its nationals – both those abducted and those merely stranded -- were trapped in the regions seized by the ISIS.
India issues a special category of passports known as the ECR (emigration check required) stamped passports specifically for vulnerable nationals travelling abroad, particularly to West Asia, for work. Those with ECR-marked passports undergo an extra check from Indian immigration officials at the airport when they leave India.
But this helps the government keep track of travel plans only of those with these special passports -- anyone with even a matriculation degree is not deemed vulnerable enough for the passport. And many Indians already have non-ECR passports before they decide to travel abroad for work.
At last count, Akbaruddin said, India had about 10,000 nationals in Iraq – a figure different from the number of 18,000 officials had cited earlier. Of these 10,000, about 6,000 are in the northern region known as Kurdistan, controlled by an autonomous government still in charge, the foreign office spokesperson said.
Another 3,000 Indians are in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of southern Iraq that remain under the control of the government in Baghdad.
These Indians – in Kurdistan and in the south -- are safe, Akbaruddin said, adding though that around 200 nationals south of Baghdad had indicated they would like to return to India. The Indian embassy, he said, is speaking with their employers to facilitate their return, likely by Friday.
Akbaruddin said the Indian government estimated that a little over 100 nationals are in the region between Kurdistan and Baghdad witnessing the worst battles between the Iraq army and the ISIS.
Of these, 46 nurses are stranded in Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraq ruler Saddam Hussein that is barely 70km from Baghdad. Many of these nurses, who have spoken to Indian embassy officials and to the Red Crescent, have indicated they would like to stay back in Iraq.
The Red Crescent and the Indian embassy have also advised them to stay in Tikrit, as roads from the city to Baghdad are witnessing some of the worst gunfights between the militants and the Iraq army.
But it is the struggle to trace the kidnapped Indians that is most testing India’s foreign policy establishment. Till they are found, it cannot begin negotiations with the kidnappers for the release of the victims.
Although India has built strong diplomatic ties with leaders across communities in Iraq, it has no contacts with the more extreme sections of the rebels who have coalesced to form the ISIS, multiple officials confirmed. An overstretched foreign service – the city-state of Singapore has more professional diplomats – hasn’t helped in developing deeper contacts in several other countries too.
“No one knows where our kidnapped nationals were taken, or where they are right now,” Indian ambassador to Iraq Ajay Kumar told The Telegraph today evening.
The Iraqi Red Crescent has offices in Mosul, Tikrit, and other parts of Iraq grabbed by the ISIS militants, Abbas, the organisation’s president said. It is the Red Crescent volunteers in Mosul – drawn from the local population – who alerted Abbas and his colleagues about the kidnappings.
The humanitarian agency plans to use its network of volunteers to hunt for any information available from the local community in Mosul to try and track down the missing Indians and their abductors.
“But the violence complicates the search,” Abbas said. “It will not be easy but we are hopeful.”