The historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, hoping to heal the wounds of a battle-scarred country in a region long accustomed to shocks and reverberations, could well develop into something more than mere symbolism if the intervening partners let the forces of reconciliation take their course. Otherwise, it will remain symbolic, temporary, and soon-to-be overcome by yet another cycle of violence. The Islamic State may have lost their caliphate but they still exist as a rallying thought, and that is enough to put together another ghastly atrocity.
Daesh, to use the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, is not an entirely finished entity, as its January attacks in Baghdad prove. It still attracts the maniacal and the medievalist, and could well use any lull from the successful Papal visit to mount an unexpected attack. The double suicide bombing in Baghdad is evidence of that capability. The propensity of some to continue to interfere in Iraq may well set the wheels backward if the gains of the Papal visit are not acted upon.
Trouble since Suleimani assassination
Since the US assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Suleimani in January 2020, Iraq has suffered one setback after another. Long on the Israeli hit list, Suleimani had been in cooperation with the US during the anti-Daesh campaign in Syria. He certainly had no love for Washington but the dislike for Daesh overrode all else, albeit temporarily. That cooperation, significant as it was in dismantling the caliphate, was put aside in ordering an assassination for inexplicable reasons. All it did was to expose the ruling establishment in Baghdad as ineffective and weak, undermining the authority in a country that desperately needs a visibly functioning State. Street unrest even in the times of Covid has now become a reality of Iraq.
Hope appears from the successful conduct of the Papal visit, and the symbolism that it offers, from words to events. So when Pope Francis disembarked from his bullet proof car in the sanitised and narrow Najaf streets, his first steps were greeted by the release of white doves, an act whose symbolism could not have been lost on even the most battle hardened. For down the road lives Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior most Shia cleric worldwide. The reclusive Ayatollah is rarely seen in public, and makes utterances even more rarely. But when he does, their impact is deep, and significant, as with the 2014 fatwa asking young able-bodied men to join the fight against Islamic State. Recruitment into militias and security forces had expanded exponentially, even in those bleak days when it was presumed the caliphate was there to stay.
Why India needs to step up
Daesh was, of course, responsible for the deaths of dozens of Indians. In its sweep across northern Iraq, Daesh kidnapped 39 construction workers mostly from Punjab and brutally murdered them near Mosul, another historical Iraqi city that played host to the Papal. Pope Francis addressed a gathering at the ancient Mosul landmark, Hosh al-Bieaa, Square of the Four Churches. Razed like much of Mosul during the brutal fighting to reclaim the city from Daesh, the destroyed churches provided the backdrop to the Pope’s speech. Rebuilding continues, and that is a process in which India must play a role as well.
It isn’t only for the 39 who were kidnapped and killed by Daesh, something the government of India long denied. It is also for the far older remains of Indian soldiers interred in a Mosul cemetery, off the road to Aleppo. They died fighting the Ottoman forces that had long occupied Iraq. The graves are among the other First World War Indian graves across Iraq — Alwiya, Amara, Baghdad, Basra, and Kut.
While meddlesome players from Washington, Ankara and Tehran ensure that Iraq has all the combustible ingredients needed to light a flame, it is the absence of countries like India that denies hope and healing in that beleaguered country. India’s role in Afghanistan since the end of 2001 has been highlighted repeatedly, and there is no reason why similar development attempts should not be repeated in Iraq. It is, after all, a country with a long Indian connection. Guru Nanak visited Baghdad on his way to perform the Hajj, and set up the first Gurudwara outside India — it would be fitting homage to that legacy to rekindle hope and healing in Iraq.
The author is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert. Views are personal.