www.outlookindia.com | Sailing Up The Tigris When Suresh Reddy, an Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1991 batch, flew out of New Delhi as Indiaâ€™s ambassador to Iraq a fortnight ago, he was symbolically burying dark memories from nearly seven years ago. In 2004, an Iraqi dissident group had abducted three Indian truck drivers (along with three Kenyans and an Egyptian) and threatened to kill them unless their company paid ransom. For 44 long days, an Indian team led by Talmiz Ahmad, currently ambassador to Saudi Arabia, engaged in protracted negotiations with the abductors, even as Indians watched every turn and twist in the tense kidnapping drama unfold on their TV. The drivers were ultimately released, but with insurgency at its height and the security situation precarious, New Delhi also decided to pull out its then ambassador B.B. Tyagi from Baghdad a few months later. Reddyâ€™s arrival in Baghdad marks the end of a seven-year hiatus in which India had downgraded its presence in Iraq, appointing just a charges dâ€™affaires for holding operations. During this period, Iraq went through momentous changesâ€”authoritarian rule was ended, two parliamentary elections were held, and the legacy of Saddam Hussein given a quiet burial. Buried with the Saddam legacy, however, is also the story of Indiaâ€™s eminence in Iraq, which will now be Reddyâ€™s task to exhume and bring to life. Not surprisingly, Reddyâ€™s departure to Baghdad has rekindled memories among Indian officials of the years during which Saddam and his predecessors were at the helm. In 1981, for instance, when India was facing an oil crisis, then prime minister Indira Gandhi dispatched Pranab Mukherjee to seek assistance from Iraq, which was then Indiaâ€™s largest oil supplier. Recalls an Indian diplomat, â€œIt took less than five minutes to sort out the issue. Saddam instructed a close aide to ensure additional supply of oil was made to India at the earliest.â€ Yet, the meeting between Pranab and Saddam continued for another 45 minutes, says the diplomat. The reason: Saddam wanted to know how â€œsister Indiraâ€ was coping with the death of her son Sanjay. The Iraqi president read out a verse from the Holy Quran pertaining to death, marked it, and asked Pranab to deliver it to â€œsister Indiraâ€ as an expression of his sympathy. This warm relationship between India and Iraq survived Indiraâ€™s death. A diplomat recalls the glow on Saddamâ€™s face as foreign minister I.K. Gujral controversially hugged him in Baghdad, where he had gone to secure the evacuations of Indians prior to the First Gulf War. A member of the Indian delegation even called Saddam a â€œJatâ€, applauding him for his fight against injustice, even though the show of warmth displeased the United States. Indian diplomats narrate such stories to underscore the â€œformidableâ€ and â€œenduringâ€ relations India and Indians had with Iraq and its people till the 1980s. The touchstone of the Indo-Iraqi relationship was their 1952 treaty of â€œPerpetual Peace and Friendshipâ€, which saw Indian doctors, teachers, professionals, businessmen and senior bureaucrats help Baghdad in capacity building and infrastructure development. Till the late 1980s, senior members of the Indian armed forcesâ€”both from the army and the air forceâ€”trained their Iraqi counterparts. Some 100 Indian companies had contracts worth $1 billion in Iraq. Indian films were a rage, and the Indian mind widely admired. Such was the esteem Indians enjoyed that they only had to utter the word Al Hind, or â€˜Indiaâ€™, to have security checks waived at police posts. India canâ€™t hope to overnight become a magic word in todayâ€™s Iraq, which, though boasting a representative government, remains under US occupation. With violence on the wane, countries are rushing to open their embassies in the hopes of bagging lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, estimated to be worth $150 billion. More than 50 countriesâ€”including China, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Russia and Bangladeshâ€”have already established their presence. Says former mea official Zikrur Rehman, who played a crucial role in the release of the kidnapped drivers in 2004, â€œIt will not be easy for the new ambassador in Iraq to recreate the magic and revive the pride of place India once enjoyed in the country.â€ What might be to Indiaâ€™s advantage is its soft power. Even now a large number of Iraqi students come to study in India. Thereâ€™s an Iraqi school in New Delhi, in fact down the street where the Outlook office is located. India remains the favoured place for medical treatmentâ€”as many as 28,000 Iraqis came for this purpose last year. And more than 50,000 Indians are said to be already working for different foreign companies in Iraq. In addition, India hasnâ€™t alienated the Iraqis, turning down Washingtonâ€™s request to send troops to Iraq and consistently opposing the imposition of sanctions against it. Says former ambassador to Iraq R. Dayakar, â€œIndia has an enduring relationship with Iraqis. There is no animosity against India and this is the right time to post an ambassador there.â€ The Indian establishment is visibly playing down the decision to send Reddy to Baghdad, perhaps in an attempt to scale down expectations. As a secretary-rank official in South Block told Outlook, â€œThe ambassadorâ€™s role will be to look for opportunities and inform the government where India can play a substantive part in Iraqâ€™s nation-building.â€ Perhaps this cautious approach is in consonance with the ground reality in Iraq. For instance, itâ€™s hard to tell whether the nationâ€”with its recent history of extreme violence and fractiousnessâ€” will plunge into bloody chaos should US President Barack Obama fulfil his promise of withdrawing his troops by 2011-end. The alternative, of the US retaining even a skeletal presence, is equally fraughtâ€”it would disappoint the moderates and encourage the extremists to target the â€œoccupying forceâ€. Also, no one quite knows the impact the Arab Spring could have on Iraqâ€”in February Baghdad witnessed demonstrations demanding better governance. It only makes sense not to hype up the reopening of the Indian embassy. As Reddy busies himself meeting officials in the Iraqi foreign ministry, he can only hope that the sentiments underlying the 1952 Treaty has endured in a rapidly changing country.