India may make a significant change in its West Asia policy and engage with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) leadership in northern Iraq which has sought the Indian government’s help against the insurgent group ISIS, senior government officials have indicated to HT.
The shift comes after a secret visit to Iraq by national security advisor Ajit Doval at the end of June when India negotiated the release of 46 Indian nurses held hostage in ISIS-controlled areas.
Intelligence Bureau Director Asif Ibrahim also travelled to Riyadh at the same time for negotiations to release the nurses.For decades, India has supported a unified Iraq and avoided contact with regional factions like the KRG. But New Delhi is favourably inclined towards the KRG’s request after ISIS called for recruits from India and al Qaeda announced the creation of a branch of the militant group for the Indian subcontinent.
“India has traditionally been wary of taking steps that can be seen as support for separatist elements in Iraq. But in light of the changing geo-politics of the region, we need to hedge our bets with all key players,” a senior official told HT on condition of anonymity.
Documents reviewed by HT and interviews with top security officials reveal details of the support India can extend to the KRG, which will be fleshed out after Prime Minister Narendra Modi returns from his US trip at the end of this month.
The proposals under discussion include material and financial support for the Iraqi Kurdish group backed by quiet diplomacy.
Government analysts say an independent Kurdistan is not a reality now but it may become so in the years ahead. A senior government official told HT the oil-rich Kurdish region’s stable economy is also a major factor for India.
“The Kurds have moderate religious beliefs, a good economy, a stable government and a well-equipped army. We could count on them as our natural allies without abandoning our traditional policy of supporting the territorial integrity of Iraq,” the official said.
New Delhi’s options for supporting the KRG are likely to figure in the bilateral talks between Modi and US President Barack Obama this month.
According to a White House statement, the two leaders “will also focus on regional issues, including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where India and the United States can work together with partners towards a positive outcome”.