The safety of 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit and 39 Indian construction workers abducted from the town of Mosul remain the focal points for New Delhi.
The crisis in Iraq took a new and unexpected turn three days ago when Sunni militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), released a message announcing the establishment of “a new caliphate”, stretching from the Syrian city of Aleppo to the region of Diyala, on the outskirts of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
ISIL also announced that its elusive and secretive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the new “Caliph,” the “leader of Muslims everywhere”, and that the name of the militant organisation will be, simply, “Islamic State“, or the IS.
Since the end of May, ISIL has been making tremendous progress with operations in Iraq, with the help of fringe Sunni groups in the country. The progress of this militant group has been well documented, showcasing their relentless brutality, with mass public executions, torture, crucifixions and so on.
The violence in Iraq has been relentless, with figures released by the United Nations suggesting June was the bloodiest month for the country in years, with more than 2400 killed. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shia, and known to be close to neighbouring Iran, could well be on his way out. Iraq finds itself once again at the crossroads, as it battles the biggest challenge to its existence since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.
ISIL, however, has not just stopped at its territorial agenda in the Middle East. The terror group has used both the mainstream and social media to further push its agenda. Twitter accounts sympathetic to ISIL’s cause released an ambitious and borderline comedic map highlighting the territory the militant group plans to bring under its rule. The purported state will stretch from the eastern shoreline of Africa, across the Sahara into the Middle East, moving to cover the entire Indian sub-continent and continuing till Indonesia. In a statement, ISIL leader al-Baghdadi included India in a long list of states where “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized.”
“The much-circulated map of ISIL’s five-year plan ought to be treated with extreme caution. It is an old map produced by ISIL supporters rather than ISIL leadership, and therefore it tells us little about the group’s current thinking,” explains Shashank Joshi, Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London based defence and security affairs think tank.
“The fact that ISIL has declared a caliphate – with claim to universal authority over Muslims – is a sign of their ambition, but it is crucial to remember they will be entirely bogged down in Syria and Iraq for possibly years, let alone getting to Jordan or Saudi Arabia.”
Over the past month India has been trying to help more than 10,000 Indians known to be living and working in Iraq. The Indian government has set up evacuation camps in the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Basra, all still firmly under the rule of the Iraqi government, with the Indian High Commission in Baghdad overseeing the operations. These camps are helping Indian citizens with paperwork and even airfare for those who cannot afford it. According to reports, 94 Indians left Iraq over the past few days and 600 more are set to leave in the coming week.
The safety of 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, a town known to have fallen completely or partially under the ISIL rule, and the safe return of 39 Indian construction workers abducted reportedly by ISIL or one of its affiliates from the town of Mosul, remain as focus points for New Delhi. Little headway has been made over the release of the workers, with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who chaired a high level meeting of India’s envoys in the Gulf, saying that New Delhi is “knocking on every door” to ensure safety of Indians. The minister also reiterated that all of the country’s national assets are on standby if required.
The nurses in Tikrit are known to be taking shelter in the basement of a hospital as the Iraqi Army launched an offensive on the city in a bid to take control back from ISIL. Of the 46 Indian nurses, 12 of them reportedly wanted to stay back in Iraq, although not in Tikrit.
Iraq’s Parliament, which convened yesterday in Baghdad’s ‘green zone’, has, for the moment, failed to establish a new government. The talks reportedly fell apart between Nouri al-Maliki, representing the Shia bloc, and Sunni and Kurdish MPs, leading to a walk out.
“I still think the Iraqi Army will hold Baghdad and the southern regions of the country,” said Joshi. “Maliki’s position is precarious, and if Iraqi forces struggle than it is easy to imagine both the US and Iran turning on him more forcefully.”