THAT Iraq considers India an influential power in the region and a traditional friend was illustrated by the visit of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Sayeed al-Sahaf to New Delhi in the third week of November. Sahaf, who was in India as the personal envoy of President Saddam Hussein, is the first high-level dignitary to visit the country after Baghdad accepted the new United Nations Security Council resolution on weapons inspection. The purpose of the visit was to convey a "verbal note" from the Iraqi President to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and to appraise Indian officials of the latest developments.
In his message, the Iraqi President highlighted the "cordial and traditional relations" between the two countries. Further, he conveyed to India Iraq's decision "to deal with the new U.N. resolution, not accept it". He made it clear that it would deny the United States any pretext to wage war. "We should distinguish between working with the U.N. and facing the foolish U.S. threats," the Minister said.
In his message, Saddam Hussein pointed out that the U.N. resolution had paragraphs that contradicted the U.N. Charter and international laws. The resolution also contradicted the reports written by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) team, which was in Iraq until 1998. UNSCOM reports had admitted that Iraq had cooperated fully. Vajpayee told the envoy that India wanted the sanctions on Iraq to be lifted once the new U.N. inspection team completed its work. According to the envoy, the "most inhuman sanctions regime" was causing the death of 10,000 Iraqi children every month, mainly because of the shortage of medicines. He said that the lack of safe drinking water was causing chronic diarrohea among children. Latest figures released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) show that one in five Iraqi children remains malnourished.
The Minister requested the Indian government to consider sending Indians to be a part of the U.N. inspections team. Weapons teams that were sent to Iraq earlier were dominated by U.S. and British officials. It had also been proved that many of the weapons inspectors were spying for the U.S. and Israel. "Inspection teams should comprise members of different nationalities so that they are neutral and professional," al-Sahaf said. The Indian government has not responded to the Iraqi request.
Iraqi officials say they are wary about the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix. They point out that Blix had testified to the U.S. Congress even while serving as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the mid-1990s. Some of his recent statements have been described by Iraqi officials as "provocative". Blix is reported to have said that even if Iraqi officials took time to open the doors to their offices during surprise visits by the U.N. inspectors, it would be construed as a deliberate delay on their part. "If one U.N. inspector claims that Iraq is not cooperating, then the U.S. could attack us,'' said the Iraqi Ambassador to India, Salah al-Mukthar. The Security Council resolution authorises the inspectors "to investigate any Iraqi citizen, inside or outside Iraq". According to Mukthar, it was like Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects being taken by American forces to the Guantanamo military base. "This is against the U.N. Charter and contradicts human rights. These are some of the time-bombs in the new U.N. resolution to provoke Iraq. There have never been such precedents ," Salah al-Mukthar said.
The visit of the special envoy was planned three months ago as part of Iraq's diplomatic and political campaign in the wake of growing U.S. threats. Senior Iraqi envoys have already visited Russia, China, the Arab countries and some West European capitals.
Sayeed al-Sahaf told the media in Delhi that Iraq was facing threats from "Anglo-Saxon" powers for the past one year under "the pretext that it has weapons of mass destruction". He said that the new U.N. resolution was adopted under U.S. pressure. "We will deal practically with this resolution in order to reach a speedy conclusion," al-Sahaf said. However, he stressed that the U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 was the main resolution in regard to the issue between Iraq and the U.N. "All the commitments of the Security Council are there in that resolution. If Iraq adheres to its commitments, then the Security Council should also adhere to its commitments," he said.
Sections of the Indian establishment seem to have been influenced by the psychological warfare that has been unleashed by the U.S. against Iraq. Before the Iraqi special envoy's visit, the Indian foreign policy establishment sent out signals that the timing of the visit was inopportune. But the statement that Vajpayee made prior to the visit of the Iraqi Minister, that India wanted all issues relating to Iraq to be settled under the auspices of the U.N., paved the way for a successful visit. Vajpayee also said that he was against the use of force to settle issues. At the same time, he said that Iraq should relinquish weapons of mass destruction in case it was in possession of such weapons.
Vajpayee's statement has been construed in some quarters as favouring the Iraqi position. Although Vajpayee took the trouble of speaking on Iraq after a considerable lapse of time, he went out of his way to focus attention on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Diplomats point out that while opposing the unilateral use of force against Iraq, Vajpayee urged Baghdad to implement the new U.N. resolution.
"India has adopted a legal and reasonable position. It is not a shift from the traditional Indian policy," the Iraqi Ambassador said. He opined that India had not succumbed to the massive diplomatic pressure that was being exerted by Washington. He said that like many other states India was alarmed by the new American doctrine of "pre-emption". "It is Iraq today, tomorrow it could be India," the Iraqi diplomat said. With the U.S. showing untoward interests in the Kashmir and nuclear issue, it is in India's interest to send a message to the international community that it is against foreign intervention in the internal affairs of independent countries.
"They are targeting Iraq but in the process are intimidating other countries. Any nation that stands up against the U.S. will face the same fate as Iraq. They want to impose their hegemony," al-Sahaf said. According to the Minister, another reason why Iraq was being targeted was to facilitate Israel's predominance in the region. He quoted Henry Kissinger as saying that the "way to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad".
Some senior officials in the South Block seem to have jumped to the hasty conclusion that a full-scale war on Iraq is imminent and a regime change is inevitable. This is clear from the statements from the Indian foreign office on Iraq and on the issue of weapons inspectors. During the visit of the Iraqi Information Minister, an Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that Iraq should "faithfully comply" with the provisions of the Security Council Resolution 1441. The Indian foreign office is conspicuously silent on the U.S. threats to effect a "regime change" in Iraq militarily although in a recent speech Vajpayee implied that he was against the concept of a regime change. "Nobody can be imposed, nor should there be any imposition," Vajpayee said.
Iraq would had have liked stronger expressions of solidarity from New Delhi. "Those not wanting solidarity with Iraq will jeopardise future relations with the country. Some people are speaking on the assumption that the issue of Iraq is pre-determined. If the U.S. attacks Iraq and if there is a military stalemate, what will the position of those advocating a pro-American stand be?" asks Ambassador Mukhtar. He stressed that no one could guarantee that America will be successful in its military campaign against Iraq. He said that people who advocated a pro-American stand were forgetting the values that India traditionally stood for.
The Iraqi envoy recalled that many people had predicted that Iraq would be decimated in the Gulf war. When that did not happen, several countries had adopted a "wait and watch attitude". They thought that Iraq would collapse under the weight of the U.N. embargo. It was only after 1998 that countries began warming up to Iraq, when they felt that the country was on the path to full economic recovery. Diplomats feel that even if India does not want to support Iraq, as a matter of principle it should raise the issue while dealing with the U.S. They say that there is a "tactical component" in India's belated diplomatic moves in relation to Iraq. This is especially so in the context of the failure of the Bush administration to deliver on its promises to rein in Pakistan.