Relatives of Indian prisoners jailed in Iraq pose at a church in Amritsar. (AFP photo)
Indian diplomacy has scored a quick victory in securing the release of 46 nurses briefly held captive by Sunni Arab militants in Iraq. This raises hopes that another batch of workers from northern India kidnapped from the Iraqi town of Mosul can also be freed.
The nurses, who were stranded in a hospital for a little over a week, had been caught in the fighting between the al-Qaeda splinter group, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), and Iraqi government forces trying to retake the town of Tikrit from the Sunni insurgents.
Read: President expresses relief over Indian nurses reaching secure area
ISIS militants moved the nurses to Mosul on Thursday before setting them off on the way to Erbil, Iraq’s fourth largest town, from where they are expected to be flown back to India.
The swiftness of the release of the nurses is in sharp contrast to the fate of 39 Indian workers who have been held captive for almost three weeks now by ISIS, which is running a bloody insurrection to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.
Read: India on ISIS radar as militant group asks Muslims of the country to fight for their dignity
There has been little news on the workers except for the fact that they are safe and probably somewhere around the ISIS-controlled town of Mosul. Certainly, there has been little visible movement forward in securing their release. Besides, the brief kidnapping of the nurses only underscored the fragile state of thousands of Indian expatriates living across Iraq, although, for now, most of them are located away from the battle zones.
Questions will be asked about how it was possible to secure the release of the nurses but not the Indian workers. One theory is that the nurses were never kidnapped but were only being evacuated by ISIS from an embattled town. If so, could it be possible that ISIS militants were wary of holding a group of women while the Indian workers, all men, were fair game as hostages in a zone of conflict?
So, what is exactly stopping India securing the release of its kidnapped workers in Iraq?
To understand the challenge India faces in retrieving its abducted citizens one would have to look at the possible options before New Delhi. The government is already exploring some of these, including seeking the help of United States, given that country’s influence in the region and over the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Read: India says all 46 nurses 'moved against will' in Iraq are free, to return home tomorrow
New Delhi is also known to have sought help from dominant Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are believed to have some leverage on ISIS.
A third option is to reach out to former leaders of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Husain’s Ba’ath party who reportedly have a line open to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS chief who recently assigned himself as the caliph of Muslims worldwide.
But in exercising one option over the other, India is caught in a dilemma.
To be sure, there is little hope for help from Baghdad because the town, Mosul, where the Indian workers are being held is an ISIS stronghold. Moreover, the Iraqi parliament is now preoccupied with a standoff over electing a new government, besides fighting the Sunni Arab militants of ISIS.
Read: 46 nurses set to be released, maybe back in India 'late tonight'
Even if India were to open a line with ISIS, possibly through Izzat al-Douri, Saddam Husain’s former second-in-command and leader of the militia Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, it would be difficult to convince the group to give up the Indian workers who they would want to use as human shields against any Iraqi military assault. Or as a bargaining chip to secure a safe passage for its commanders in the event of an Iraqi siege.
Besides, ISIS commanders would also be wary of handing over the Indian hostages to any unknown entity because of fears of sabotage by rival forces or security agencies, something that may lead to a groundswell of global opinion against ISIS and possibly hasten a western military intervention.
Another potential prickly area could be establishing the status of some of the kidnapped Indian workers. There are speculations that some of them may have been working in Iraq illegally.
Given the complicated scenario, India must develop a network of ground-level interlocutors capable of reaching out with trust to most of the stakeholders in the region, including through liberal Kurdish intermediaries, the kind that may have played a role in securing the release of the nurses.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)
Full coverage: Iraq on the brink