Indian nurses freed by ISIL, so why are 39 construction workers still in Iraq?

Back channel and diplomatic talks were held with the Americans, Syrians, Iranians, Qataris, Turks, the Saudis and possibly the Israelis. Shrouded in complete secrecy, negotiations continue for the other Indian hostages too.

Rajeev Sharma July 06, 2014 18:30:29 IST
Indian nurses freed by ISIL, so why are 39 construction workers still in Iraq?

The Ministry of External Affairs is all clammed up about the behind-the-scenes negotiations with entities (whose identities have not been revealed) through state and non-state actors’ channels that led to the successful release of 46 Indian nurses from captivity in Iraq even though 39 Indian construction workers still remain hostage in that country.

The PMO has directed the MEA to keep absolutely mum on how the nurses’ release was secured. When, on Friday afternoon, news emerged about imminent release of 46 Indian nurses, all eyes turned to the MEA briefing scheduled for 4 pm but eventually took place 90 minutes later.

Indian nurses freed by ISIL so why are 39 construction workers still in Iraq

The nurses wait to board a flight from Erbil. PTI

The government reportedly toyed with the idea of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj herself briefing the press as she has been personally leading the government’s three kinds of diplomacy in the Iraqi theater – through the front doors, the back doors and the trap doors – while the PMO and Prime Minister Narendra Modi monitored these efforts closely.

This would have been Sushma’s maiden press conference as External Affairs Minister and her perfect introduction to the media, but the ministry decided to seek the PMO’s views on this. The Prime Minister was in Jammu and Kashmir at the time.

Sources privy to the goings on within the government told this writer that Prime Minister Modi expressed a desire to break the news himself with an address to the nation. The idea was given a serious thought for some time but it fizzled out because of logistics, and because security agencies also red-flagged the idea of making arrangements at such short notice.

Besides, the Prime Minister was told, it would be politically dangerous for him to wade into the issue when 39 Indian construction workers are still in captivity in Iraq, for almost a month now.

Eventually, the signal to the MEA from the PMO was to go ahead with the briefing in a routine manner, to be conducted by MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin as usual. This explains the one-and-half hour delay in the start of the MEA briefing on Friday.

Sources said the Indian government worked through an intricate web of channels, including even the Americans. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni outfit that has claimed large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and announced an Islamic caliphate called the Islamic State, has enjoyed some patronage of Americans and thus they still have well-oiled contacts within the outfit.

But the Americans were not the only ones contacted by the Indian government for the nurses. There were Syrians, Iranians, Qataris, Turks and, of course, the Saudis. I have a lurking feeling that the Israelis too must have played a vital role as few powers in the world – not even the United States – have such deep penetration in the Islamic world as Israel does.

One should not be surprised if one sees a hyper-active engagement between India and Israel in the coming months – a diplomatically logical corollary considering the mutual liking between BJP and Israel.

Now the question is: why were the nurses freed virtually within 24 hours of their captivity while the 39 construction workers are still grappling with an uncertain future?

A possible explanation perhaps can be that the ISIS militants could not be unmindful of the bad image they would have gained by keeping women, that too non-Muslim, in captivity during the holy month of Ramzan after they declared themselves a Caliphate. Moreover, remaining in captivity for long is a matter of stigma for women across the world.

There is in fact a strong possibility of a breakthrough vis a vis 39 Indian hostages in Iraq. The same channels that enabled the release of the nurses may trigger a breakthrough in the case of the 39 Indian men too.

But the Modi government is apprehensive of things going awry unpredictably and would not like to lower its guard till the 39 Indian hostages return home safely.

Efforts are being redoubled in that direction. But the problem is that the Iraqi strategic kaleidoscope too is changing colours rapidly.

Take for instance recent reports emanating from Washington that the Pentagon is considering to go ahead with airstrikes in Iraq, realizing that the Iraqi forces won’t be able to reclaim territory from the ISIS militants.

Also, Iraq has issued a blunt warning to the US that if Washington does not send in military help immediately, Baghdad would be constrained to take support from willing friendly nations like Iran, Syria and Russia who are inimical to Washington.

Delays in securing the release of the 39 Indian men could prove to be costly as the military situation in Iraq is threatening to reach a boiling point in coming days.

(The writer is Firstpost Consulting Editor and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.)

Updated Date:

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