India should help rebuild Iraq: Envoy

The Iraqi envoy to India, Fakhri H Al-Issa, wants New Delhi to get involved in the reconstruction of his war-ravaged country

Aditi Bhaduri | May 4, 2017


#Middle East   #Gulf   #Iraqi Amabassador   #Iraq   #Fakhri H Al-Issa   #Islamic State   #Daesh  


Iraqis are at the forefront of the war against the Daesh in the entire Middle East, says Fakhri H Al-Issa, the Iraqi ambassador to India. “Iraq is not fighting for Iraq alone. If Iraq collapses, the entire Middle East will destabilise, in fact the whole world will. Imagine if Iraq is occupied by Daesh, what will happen to the Gulf states? What will happen to India? India should do its part.”

India has old civilisational ties with Iraq, which was till recently India’s second largest oil supplier and remains one of its main energy sources. Socio-cultural ties between the two countries remain robust though trade has slowed down considerably since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Cooperation continues under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) to train Iraqi government officials. Thousands of Iraqi students are also enrolled in various Indian colleges and universities.

Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is planning to visit India sometime by May-end and an announcement on visa-free travel for diplomats is on the cards.

“But much much more needs to be done,” says the ambassador. “Right now Iraq has 3.6 million people displaced from north and west Iraq. They’re in much need for everything – shelter, food, medicines. India can do much.”

He believes that India should also provide training to the armed forces and the police in counter-terrorism, and transfer Indian expertise in governance. He also believes it is time for defence cooperation too.

The Iraqi armed forces were weak, something the ambassador attributes to the mistake the Americans made in “disbanding the Iraqi army in 2003, and all the security forces”. There are currently about 6,000 US troops in Iraq, along with the forces of other ‘coalition countries’ like Australia and the UK. “Our armed forces now play a major role in liberating occupied territories from Daesh,” he affirms.

There is speculation that US troops will continue to remain in Iraq after Mosul, Iraq’s northern and second largest city, is liberated and the Daesh is exterminated.

During his visit to the US in March this year, Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi wrote a piece in The Washington Post in which he says: “My country needs more help from the US.”

The ambassador believes that India should and could extend military help too. More than a decade ago, during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there had been talks of India sending peace-keeping troops to Iraq. However, the cabinet committee on security decided that it would not be in India’s best interest.

“They don’t necessarily have to be Indian troops. The two defence ministries should sit down and work it out between themselves. There can be military training and it can go up to India supplying arms. What kind has to be worked out by the representatives of the defence ministries, but it is possible.”

But there is also huge scope for Indian involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. “We need India to be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. Forty percent of the land had been occupied by Daesh and much of the infrastructure was destroyed. There are entire cities to be built, schools, hospitals, parks. There is enough work to last for the next 30 to 40 years in all parts of Iraq. We anticipate that after the liberation of Mosul, many other countries will be flocking to Iraq and India may lose out. But if it can establish a presence now, then it will give it an edge in the long run. India must have the bigger picture in mind.”

For instance, each year the Indian embassy in Baghdad issues visas to about 20-25,000 Iraqis to visit India for medical treatment because the country lacks these facilities. “Imagine if the health facilities are made available by Indian companies there. Security will not be a real problem, especially now that Mosul will be liberated soon.”

The liberation of Mosul, however, seems to be coming at a great cost. The city with about 1.5 million people is divided into the eastern and western parts by the Tigris river. While the Daesh has been ousted from the eastern part, the western part is still being battled over. There are reports of 200 civilian deaths in one day alone, caused not by Daesh but by coalition forces. Many displaced residents have refused to come back to the liberated areas unless it is completely secured.

But Al-Issa points out that the fighting taking place currently in Mosul is more of a guerilla war now. In the old city where there are about 3,000-4,000 residents, many are being used by Daesh as human shields. The civilian deaths took place, he says, because “Daesh is using civilian areas”.

He points out that “these Sunnis are under oppression of Daesh. And the Daesh are not Sunnis, by the way. They are a group of people following Wahabism, which is not Sunni. They actually regard that Sunnis have deviated from Islam and must convert to Wahabism and if they are not doing so, then they have the right to fight and kill them. They call them kafir. The Christians are kafir, people of all  other reglisions are kafir. They believe that they are the only people following the correct Islam. So the Sunnis of Mosul want to get rid of Daesh. No one wants Daesh, especially the Iraqis who have been living together for centuries, Shias and Sunnis. We also have had so many mixed marriages between Sunnis and Shias. The tribes are mixed. We have been raised like that. All this division between Sunnis and Shias has been created, to make this war, and Daesh is used as a tool.”

By whom? Who is ‘they’? Al-Issa sighs and responds:  “They” –  it is whoever has an interest in seeing that  Iraq does not exist, whoever has the vested interest in destabilising Iraq. These are both regional and international powers. Some of the regional countries are involved by supplying funds and finances for Daesh, and some by issuing fatwas to support and legalise their movement to takfiris – a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy – by authorising fighters, saying that they are fighting for Islam which is not true at all. So some of Iraq’s neighbouring countries allowed such fighters to enter Iraq.

“But the defeat of Daesh is very close. Yes, very close.”

However, while common wisdom is that Daesh is all set to be defeated, can this military defeat ensure that it is totally uprooted? Can it ensure the destruction of Daesh’s ideology? There seems to be no assurances on this score.

“The destruction of Daesh ideology is the responsibility of the world and not only of Iraq,” says Al-Issa. “The world should take the responsibility very seriously. I always say that every country has to fight Daesh, at least ideologically.”

While a number of Indians have been deported from countries in the Gulf region and Turkey for being Daesh ideologues, and some Daesh operatives were arrested inside India, and still more recently the bombing on the Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train on March 7 has been alleged to have been the handiwork of a Daesh terror module, Al-Issa thinks that there cannot be more than 10-15 Indians fighting along with the Daesh in Iraq.

And just how vulnerable is India to the Daesh threat and its ideology?  “There are a lot of seminaries, religious schools in India that are teaching the wrong versions of Islam, the version that produces Daesh sympathisers and can easily convert them into Daesh fighters,” he points out. “No country is safe from it.”

What would it take to root out the Daesh ideology? “It is like a cancer, if you do not deal with it, if you do not stop it, it will spread. There are international media channels that are sympathetic to Daesh and spreading the words of Wahhabism, which says that they are the only true followers of Islam and all others are deviants. Many means have helped to spread it – its ideology. No one is talking about its ideology, that it’s wrong. That is brushed aside, in fact even promoted. Money is available for spreading it and the religious centres exist. We have managed to disrupt many of its funding networks but frankly the borders are not completely under our control. No one country can completely control its borders with another country. We also have some deradicalisation centres and we are using the medium and all means possible to spread the message that this ideology is wrong, it’s not Islam.

“That is why fighting Daesh has to be a collective effort. Every country has to be involved.”

One of the reasons that analysts believe helped in the rise of Daesh was Sunni marginalisation in Iraq after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and the formation of a Shia-majority government, which widened the sectarian rift in the country.

“This is just an excuse. This is not true.” The simple reason, he says, is that there is a federal system in place in Iraq.

“Shias are a majority in the country and so any government formed democratically as is happening in Iraq today will automatically have more Shias in its fold. But Sunnis are not and cannot be marginalised because in our federal setup, we have provincial governments for each province. So it means that in the Sunni-majority provinces, we have mostly Sunnis in the provincial government and similarly in the Christian provinces and so on. The federal government is just coordinating, giving them funds, and is in charge of defence, security and foreign policy.”

He concedes there may be parts of the country which were controlled by a few people who were there during the previous regime and the other previous regimes, belonging to a certain set. Now they want to revert to the old regime, and dream of going back to the old days when they ruled not through democracy but by controlling power. Those days are however over. Iraq today is trying to experiment with democracy and parliamentary elections are due next year, when the president and prime minister will also be elected.

However, allegations persist that the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), which are mostly Shia in composition and augmenting the Iraqi armed forces in their battle against Daesh, are further fuelling sectarian strife, trying to grab power in liberated areas and engaging in violence.

The ambassador disagrees.

“The PMUs involve about 1,50,000  people from amongst different sections of Iraqi society. Majority are Shias from the south and they are performing a great duty. They are sacrificing their lives for those from the north who are mostly Sunnis, and some of whose leaders, politicians are cooperating with Daesh, while their people are paying a heavy price. Many of them are displaced. So while majority of PMUs are Shias, there are other PMUs also, including Sunni and Christian ones.” These PMUs, however, were formed when religious leaders in Najf, Sheikh Al Sistani issued a fatwa asking for fighters to enlist themselves to defend Baghdad and Iraq. 

These PMUs have been approved of by the parliament, approved and authorised like the other security forces like the police.

“At the most, only half of the PMU forces are Shia but other half are not,” he explains. “They are defending their cities, and the government has provided them with arms, with training.” But many of them are tribes that are fighting Daesh. Whoever is fighting Daesh is being supported by the government as we need people to fight Daesh. But let’s say after the Sunni-dominated governorate of Salahadin was liberated, who were the people who took it over? It was the Sunnis. By the way, when the blood is spilt, we do not regard it as Shia or Sunni or Christian. They are Iraqis, all fighting to defend the country.”

There is an increasing debate about Iraq’s imminent partition into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions. Al-Issa straightaway rejects this.
“This will never happen. Now we have a constitution which provides for a federal system and provincial governments. However, the institution  allows for every two-three provinces which want to organise themselves as a single entity, like the Kurdistan region, which includes Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and two others, has its own identity and autonomy, with their own police force, but within the framework of the Iraqi constitution and Iraqi government.”

And just how deep has Daesh struck roots in the Af-Pak region, part of its province Khorasan? “The ideology does exist there, regardless of the name. What is the difference between Al Qaeda and Daesh? It’s the same ideology. We have to get rid of the ideology and all countries should join in. India has a role to play. It should be more aggressive about its presence in Iraq and participation in rebuilding Iraq. India has the knowhow and competent costs. There are companies which have not delivered, but there are other companies doing excellent work, especially in the field of pipelines. We want India in our country. We have great potential, though we are now suffering from low oil prices and the fight with terrorism. Only 20 percent of Iraq’s potential has been discovered. So we have great potential. We have the ability to produce up to 10-12 million barrels of oil per day. We are going to increase output but provided we have the infrastructure and security. India should think of the long term.”

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(The article appears in the May 1-15, 2017 issue)

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