Indian Intimacy with Saddam
By Dr Shireen M Mazari


Recent revelations regarding former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh’s linkage to the UN oil-for-food programscandal should not have come as a surprise to anyone who knew of the long history of close cooperation between India and the Saddam regime, especially between the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and the Indian Congress Party. This relationship had a strong strategic dimension to it that the US would do well to recall as it goes into a strategic partnership with India which includes a nuclear dimension.
The India-Iraq relationship also had a nuclear component going back to the first Indian nuclear test in 1974, as highlighted in a document of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). It was in 1974 that Saddam flew into India specifically to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Indira Gandhi government. This agreement included exchange of scientists, training and technology transfers. Iraqi scientists were working in India’s fuel reprocessing laboratories when India separated plutonium for its first nuclear explosive device. Later, those same Iraqi scientists were in charge of the nuclear fuel reprocessing unit supplied to Iraq by the Italian company, CNEN. This was followed by an Indian scientist spending a year at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission’s computer center, training Iraqis in the use of nuclear computer codes.
So it was hardly surprising to find Iraq supporting India’s nuclear tests. The Ba’ath Party’s newspaper, Al-Thawra, declared: “We cannot see how anyone can ask India not to develop nuclear weapons and its long-range missiles at a time [when] it is like any other big state with its human and scientific potential” (ISIS brief, May 28, 1998). Also, in May 1998, a Baghdad weekly, owned by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Uday, announced that India had agreed to enroll several groups of Iraqi engineers “in advanced technological courses” scheduled for mid-July. The field of training was left unspecified.
An Indian company, NEC Engineers Private Ltd, is believed to have helped Iraq acquire equipment and materials “capable of being used for the production of chemicals for mass destruction,” according to a CNN report of January 26, 2003. The company also sent technical personnel to Iraq, including to the Fallujah II chemical plant. Between 1998 and 2001, NEC Engineers Private Ltd shipped 10 consignments of highly sensitive equipment, including titanium vessels and centrifugal pumps to Iraq.
Nor was Iraq-India cooperation limited to the hi-tech and nuclear fields. Before the Gulf War of 1990-91, Iraq was one of the major sources of India’s oil imports and one of the biggest markets for India’s project exports, mostly in the construction sector. With the onset of the Gulf War in 1990-91, and the imposition of UN sanctions, India’s trade with Iraq suffered seriously. That is why India opposed the sanctions regime. As late as September 2000, India’s then minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Kumar Panja, visited Iraq. In his meeting with Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yasin Ramadhan, he said, “India has been and is against any sanctions and we tried to convince all bilaterally and multilaterally, even at UN forums, that sanctions against Iraq must be lifted.”
On the sidelines of the 1998 NAM Summit in Durban, South Africa, a meeting between India’s prime minister at that time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the then Iraqi vice-president, expanded Indo-Iraqi cooperation with the setting up of a joint business council. In November 2000, Iraqi Vice-President Taha Ramadhan visited India, the highest Iraqi dignitary to travel to India in 25 years.
The Indian media consistently played up the intimacy of the Saddam regime with India and the consistency of the support provided by Saddam for Indian positions. Under a Times of India headline of July 7, 2002, ‘Iraq conveys support to India on J&K issue’, it was reported that Saddam Hussein had “conveyed his principled and unwavering support to India on the Kashmir issue and said Iraq greatly values its relationship with New Delhi.” Saddam conveyed his views to the visiting Indian petroleum minister, Ram Naik, and declared that “friendship with India had been a source of strength not only to Iraq but to the Arab world.” Two days later (July 9, 2002), the Times of India carried another story titled ‘Iraq prizes ties with India: Saddam Hussein’, in which Saddam stated that “We are ready to cooperate with India, and we say this not because we are under siege but within a strategic vision of the region and the world; most importantly, within the framework of India’s relations with Arabs.” During this visit by Ram Naik to Iraq in July 2002, Iraq and India signed an agreement to boost trade ties, especially in the oil sector. During the visit, the Iraqi oil minister, Amir Muhammed Rasheed, described India as a “strategic partner”. By July 2002, bilateral trade between Baghdad and New Delhi under the ‘oil-for-food’ program had reached $1.1bn. So an Indian connection in the scandal related to this program was almost a given.
It is believed that talks on oil vouchers probably took place when the then Iraqi vice-president visited India in 2000. According to India Today (December 12, 2005), Singh managed to get an invitation in his name and then got clearance for a four-member Congress delegation to visit Iraq from January 17-24, 2001. Singh then added his son and his business partner, Andaleeb Sehgal, to the official delegation. Apparently, it was on this trip that the deal was sealed and four million barrels of oil were allocated by the Saddam regime to Singh and four million to the Congress.
Nor did India develop close strategic links only with Iraq, once again during a Congress government. Following a visit to Iran by Indira Gandhi in April 1974, in which agreements were reached on a number of cooperative ventures including in the technological field, India went on to sign a formal nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran in February 1975 -- similar to the one signed with Iraq a few years earlier. The Iran-India nuclear connection in terms of scientist and technology exchanges has been listed in these columns earlier. But clearly in the seventies and eighties, the Indian state saw nothing wrong with playing a proliferator role in the nuclear field. The energy issue has also been critical in Indian considerations, and continues to be so. That Iraq and Iran are major energy suppliers was certainly a crucial consideration for India in its nuclear cooperation with these two countries. Now India is also wooing the Saudi Kingdom and King Abdullah is to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi in January 2006. Of course, the Muslim angle is also a factor as close links with Muslim states plays well with India’s Muslim population.
The question is whether the US and other western powers are either oblivious to this role or have deliberately chosen to ignore the Saddam-India connections that continue to surface. As the US moves effectively towards undermining the NPT and recognizing India as a nuclear weapons power, the answer to this question will clarify the proliferation issue for the Pakistani state and civil society.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)

 


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