Restoring ties

Published : Dec 23, 2001 00:00 IST

India and Iraq clear the ground for a framework to strengthen bilateral relations, during the visit of Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan to New Delhi.

THE five-day visit of Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan to India in the last week of November signalled the resumption of high-level contacts between the two countries. It is after almost 20 years that such a high-power Iraqi delegation has visite d India. The unjust United Nations-mandated embargo on Iraq imposed in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991 had limited diplomatic exchanges between Baghdad and New Delhi. Besides, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has veered closer to the United St ates. Criticism of the economic blockade and the daily violation of Iraqi sovereignty by U.S. and British planes has thus been comparatively muted.

Taha Yassin Ramadan, who is Number Two in the political hierarchy of his country, said that bilateral relations were "exceptionally good" until 1990. After that there was a period of "inertia", but diplomatic interaction in the last two years had provide d the basis for restoration of ties to their previous level, he said. Ramadan had met Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in Durban during the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit.

Ramadan said that the relations between the two countries had reached a "turning point" and that the two countries had built the framework for "strategic and long-term cooperation whi-ch will be beneficial for all the countries in the region".

Baghdad is keen to strengthen its ties with New Delhi, but there are doubts about the latter's priorities. At a time when Iraq is slowly but surely coming out of its diplomatic isolation, India is trying to play by the book. Ramadan claimed that only the U.S., Britain and Israel wanted the diplomatic blockade against Iraq to continue. Pro-American governments such as those in Turkey and Jordan have breached the U.N.-mandated sanctions and are doing roaring business with Iraq. About 1,000 trucks from Tur key cross into Iraq every day, transporting mainly oil. Jordan's Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb visited Baghdad in November. Even Egypt, which had refused to deal with Iraq as long as Saddam Hussein was in control, has decided to send back its Ambassador. The envoy was recalled 10 years ago. Ramadan wants India to join the growing number of countries doing business with Baghdad. The West may consider this "sanctions busting", but even Saudi Arabia had opened its borders to truck traffic from Iraq, he sai d.

Ramadan said that the continuation of the sanctions was "ridiculous" and that the Iraqi people had suffered enough. India "fully appreciated and understood" Iraq's position on the sanctions issue, he said. A senior Indian External Affairs Ministry offic ial described the sanctions as "unjust, unwarranted and detrimental to the interests of the Iraqi people".

Iraq's presence at the Arab summit in Cairo in October was another clear signal to the international community that its diplomatic isolation was over. The uncompromising stance of the Iraqi government against Israel on the Palestine issue has seen Saddam Hussein's popularity soar on the streets in Arab countries. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit held in Qatar in November called for an intensification of efforts to "prepare the ground for resolving the differences" and dropped its refe rence to "Iraqi aggression", unlike as was being done regularly until 1991.

Since October several countries, including Russia and France, have sent their aircraft to Baghdad in symbolic defiance of the blockade and the isolation of Iraq. Russia sends two planes a week, despite the U.S. expressing its displeasure of the action op enly.

India sent its Minister of State for External Affairs Ajit Kumar Panja to Iraq in October. Panja pledged to send an Indian plane to Baghdad, but this idea did not find favour with the mandarins of South Block. His statements of support to the beleaguered Iraqi people and government were considered to be too effusive by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. Several political parties and organisations have requested the government to allow them to charter a plane to go to Baghdad. Sending an Indian com mercial plane to Baghdad will be deeply appreciated in Iraq. "It will be good if India sends a plane. It will be a message of solidarity with the Iraqi people," said Salah Al-Mukhtar, Iraq's Ambassador to India. He said that in the last two months more t han 80 flights had landed at the brand new Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. Recently, a plane carrying British parliamentarians landed in Baghdad.

Ramadan was slated to visit India in the middle of October but his trip was rescheduled on the suggestion of the Indian government, apparently because of Vajpayee's knee operation. The Iraqi side then insisted that Ramadan's visit should take place a mon th later. The Iraqi government wants its traditional friends like India to help accelerate the pace of its re-entry into the international community. Arab diplomats say that internal politics has forced India to sideline Iraq in the last 10 years. Baghda d's relations with New Delhi were "normal, not warm", said an Arab diplomat.

DESPITE the international price of crude oil remaining high, Iraq has been providing cheap oil to several countries. Iraq pumps 150,000 barrels a day through an oil pipeline in Syria, which was reopened after 20 years. India has agreed in principle to th e Iraqi proposal for counter-trade.

An External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that an understanding was reached for the import of oil from Iraq. India will export foodgrains in exchange. But the official hastened to add that the implementation of this understanding would be in the contex t of the U.N. sanctions regime. The U.N. Security Council's Iraqi Sanctions Committee has rejected Iraqi pricing proposals under the oil-for-food programme because the prices are below the market value. The deal Iraq has offered has come at an opportune time for the Indian government, which has a bumper reserve of 40 million tonnes of grain as against the required buffer stock of 18 million tonnes.

Iraqi officials have emphasised that Iraq's decision to lift almost all the surplus wheat is an illustration of the priority they give to relations with India. An Iraqi official pointed out that several countries were willing to supply wheat in lieu of o il. Besides, at a time when the international prices of oil stayed at around $30 a barrel, Iraq was offering its oil at bargain basement prices. "We sell oil as a normal commodity. Prices are determined according to the markets and the nature of the rela tions and the circumstances we are in. We are under a blockade. Besides, Article 50 of the U.N. Charter allows countries to trade with Iraq in all commodities," Ramadan said.

Jordan and Turkey are doing business with Iraq ostensibly under the provisions of Article 50. Around 1,500 trucks cross over from Turkey to Iraq every day with foodstuff and other commodities, and return to Turkey carrying oil bought at cheap prices. An Iraqi official said that India should also follow suit; instead of sending trucks, New Delhi should send Indian companies to Iraq to do business. At present, bilateral trade amounts to around a paltry $300 million annually. "We want a trade turnover in b illions of dollars, not millions," said an Iraqi diplomat. He said India had agreed that trading under Article 50 was the best way.

Under the oil-for-food programme, Iraq's oil revenues are supposed to go to an escrow account supervised by the U.N. Twenty-five per cent of the revenue is earmarked for Kuwait as war reparations and some money goes to the U.N. for expenses on Iraq-relat ed work. Unhappy with the existing arrangement, Baghdad has indicated that it would opt out of the oil-for-food arrangement if it is not allowed free access to the money generated by the sale of its own oil. It has even threatened to stop pumping oil alt ogether for the international market if the U.N. does not review the unjust programme. If Iraq, which has the second largest oil reserves in the world, stops production, the impact on the international oil market could be significant.

In the first week of December, the majority of the members of the U.N. Security Council, taking the Iraqi threat seriously, agreed to give Baghdad more say in the way the oil-for-food revenues are spent. Iraq will now be allowed to spend $528 million fo r the next six months from its oil revenue on the maintenance of its oil industry. The Security Council also approved the sale of telecommunications and transportation equipment to Iraq. It agreed to increase the number of goods Iraq will be allowed to i mport without seeking approval from the Sanctions Committee. Iraq has an estimated $19 billion in its coffers from the oil-for-food programme. The U.S. Special Representative in the Security Council dealing with Iraq had opposed the new deals. But Washin gton, finding itself isolated, agreed to the compromise deal. The original idea, mooted by France, was to allow Iraq to import telecommunications and transport equipment. This plan was vetoed by the U.S.

The consistently high international oil prices have affected India's deficit. The looming economic crisis has made Indian policy-makers rediscover the importance of its traditional Arab friends like Iraq. A few days before Ramadan's arrival, Jaswant Sing h made a statement in Parliament calling for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq, but he went on to add that the move should be in "tandem" with Iraq's compliance with the U.N. resolutions. A senior Indian Foreign Ministry official said that though Ind ia would abide by the U.N. sanctions, there were several ways by which it could do business with Iraq - implying that despite the wide-ranging sanctions, there was tremendous scope for increasing bilateral trade. He described the visit of the Iraqi Vice -President as "a very important one".

An Iraqi official said that the "strategic" agreement on oil reached during Ramadan's visit would guarantee a steady flow of oil to India and ensure stable prices of oil. A Foreign Office spokesman said that Iraq had agreed to give better access to India n companies in oil-related projects. Indian companies have been invited to participate in a variety of projects in the power and oil sectors. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has signed an agreement with the state-owned Oil Exploration Company of Iraq for oil exploration. Another contract has been signed to explore for oil in the Tuba oilfield. A production-sharing agreement between the two countries is likely to be signed in the near future.

Ramadan said Iraq had complied fully with the U.N. resolutions. "The American blockade on Iraq does not have any legal pretexts," he said. However, the U.S. insists that Iraq continues to be a rogue state, and that the U.N. weapons inspectors must return to Baghdad to complete their unfinished job.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had let it be known that she would not mind if Iraqi children perished owing to hunger and malnutrition as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth was coincide ntally in Delhi when Ramadan was having high-level discussions with Indian officials.

The visiting Iraqi leader broadly hinted that his country would reward those governments that defied the U.S. and started doing normal business with Baghdad. According to Ramadan, "the price of oil is determined by the market as well as by the nature and depth of bilateral relations". The Iraqi side feels that after the high-level visit, big strides have been made in strengthening bilateral political cooperation. Iraqi officials said that for the first time the Government of India had condemned the emba rgo on Iraq in categorical terms. They pointed out that Jaswant Singh's statement in Parliament was critical of the Clinton administration's interpretations of the sanctions.

Several countries are getting oil at concessional rates today. Pakistan gets it from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Venezuela supplies oil at special "friendship prices" to Cuba. India could be the beneficiary of a similar deal if the present government summons enough courage and expresses solidarity with the people of Iraq.

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