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?Delhi has lost a steadfast friend?

India had a sizeable presence in Iraq during Saddam?s rule, writes Ranjit Singh Kalha.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2006 02:38 IST

Sometime in 1974 Saddam Hussein told a visiting Indian delegation that, “Iraq has decided to have good relations with India.” He personally visited India for the first time in 1974 and the return visit of Indira Gandhi in 1975 are considered landmarks in the relations between the two countries.

Throughout his career, Saddam lived up to his commitment and never wavered. Any visitor from India could not but be impressed at the genuine feeling of warmth and friendship that the Iraqi people as well as the governmental circles had for India. It could not have been so but for the role played by Saddam.

India had a sizeable presence in Iraq during Saddam’s rule. Indian companies got lucrative contracts worth some US$ 5 billion. Bilateral trade flourished, as the economies of the two countries were compatible. Iraq was oil-rich and India needed oil badly at low prices. On the other hand India exported manpower and technical expertise that Iraq sorely needed. An oil refinery was built in Mumbai based entirely on high-quality Basra crude.

Indian military training teams were present in Iraq during the early part of his presidency. IAF teams largely trained the Iraqi Air Force. Iraqis came to Indian military training establishments as also for higher education in Indian universities. Needless to say, Indian films had a stupendous market and Indian film stars a dedicated and a huge following!

Saddam batted for India at the IOC. Support for India on Kashmir was constant. During the Bangladesh crisis in 1971, Saddam not only specially diverted an oil tanker for India when an embargo was threatened but was one of the first in the Arab world to recognize the new nation.

However, what impressed me the most was the Iraqi attitude during the events leading to the smashing of the Babri Masjid. As we braced for the expected retaliation in Baghdad, much to our utter surprise nothing happened. There were no protests and no demonstrations outside the Embassy. It was only on the December 14, a good eight days later that I was summoned to the Foreign Office where a mild protest was made. Seeing the surprise on my face, the official smiled and said, “Mr Ambassador these are the orders from the very top” Saddam could not have been a better friend in need!

(The author was the Indian ambassador to Iraq between 1992 and 1994)

First Published: Dec 31, 2006 02:38 IST