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    Middle East
     Jul 2, '14

Iraqi tsunami hits South Asia
By Daniele Grassi

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The advance of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants in northern Iraq is fueling serious concern in the international community. Besides underlining the failure of the American policy in the region and setting in motion a dangerous reconfiguration of the balance of power within the international jihadist galaxy, the successes of the terrorist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could have a negative impact over many other scenarios, including South Asia.

India is looking with great concern at the events going on in Iraq. The ISIS advance poses serious problems in terms of security for

foreigners residing in Iraq. Forty Indian hostages are currently being held by ISIS in an undisclosed location and 46 Indian nurses are stranded in Tikrit hospitals. Overall, there are about 10,000 Indians living in Iraq. It is the first major test for the government of Narendra Modi, who recently took office in New Delhi.

The Indian authorities have ruled out the possibility of a military operation to free the citizens held hostage, but the events going on in Iraq are increasingly mobilizing the Indian Muslim community, particularly the Shiite one. With about 175 million people (15% of the overall population), the Indian Muslim community is the third largest in the world. Shiites number more than 50 million, only second to Iran.

India has always tried to stick to a neutral policy in conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, thus avoiding to feed the resentment of one of the two currents. The unfolding events in Iraq may nevertheless exacerbate sectarian tensions in India, regardless of the New Delhi official policy. In recent weeks, the organization Anjuman-e-Haideri, led by Shiite cleric Maulana Kalb-e-Jawad, has launched a campaign to recruit volunteers willing to travel to Iraq to defend the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

On several occasions, ISIS militants have declared their intention to bring the Sunni insurgency to places sacred to Shiites, a plan with highly destabilizing consequences for the entire Middle East region and beyond. The group said it has 100,000 signatories from across India and has held several demonstrations "against terrorism" in Delhi and other cities. As stated by the spokesperson of Anjuman-e-Haideri, the goal would be to create a human chain to surround the shrines should ISIS attack shrines spread across Iraq, by putting together an army of one million volunteers.

In addition to relying on sectarian elements, the organization is trying to win support among the population, focusing on the risks that the advance of ISIS poses for the security of the country. In this regard, the leaders of Muslim religious organization Anjuman-e-Haideri contacted the Indian government highlighting the risk that ISIS could support terrorist groups interested in carrying out attacks in India, a clear reference to the formations that operate from Pakistan.

In addition to security risks and dangers for the peaceful coexistence between Sunnis and Shiites, the unfolding events in Iraq are likely to produce negative effects on the Indian economy. The country is largely dependent on oil imports to meet domestic energy needs. Because of international sanctions on Iran, Iraq has for the past three years been the second-largest oil supplier to the Indian market, after Saudi Arabia.

Until now, the price of crude oil has undergone only a slight increase. About 95% of Iraq's oil production is concentrated in the south of the country, an area hitherto not affected by the advance. However, due to the severity of the events going on, the possibility that the clashes will intensify, assuming the dimensions of a civil war, cannot be ruled out.

In this case, the price of crude oil would suffer an inevitable surge, with negative repercussions for the overall international economic recovery and, in particular, for the economies most dependent on imported energy resources. An increase in the price of crude oil of less than US$10 would cost to India between US$3-4 billion dollars, thus partially influencing the budget bill that will be presented in the coming days by the new Indian government.

A surge in crude oil prices would have negative repercussions in Pakistan as well. However, in this case, the risks related to the events going on in Iraq are even greater. Pakistan, like India, has tried to stay neutral in the sectarian conflicts affecting the Middle East. A few months ago, the Pakistani government officially rejected a request by Saudi Arabia to supply Syrian rebels with weapons. However, in the last years, Pakistan has undergone a worrying rise in sectarian tensions. In 2013, there were 687 people killed in sectarian attacks (mostly Shiite), an increase of over 20% compared to 2012.

A number of terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Janghvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, have been perpetuating sectarian violence in Pakistan, also thanks to strong ties established with other militant groups operating in the country. The rise of these groups has been encouraged by the ambiguous policy adopted by governments that have never been resolute in condemning these acts of sectarian violence, and indeed is often accused of collusion with such groups.

The escalation of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites caused by the Iraqi crisis may further complicate the coexistence between these two communities in Pakistan, with serious negative consequences for the precarious security situation of the country, which is already enduring the consequences of a military campaign launched on June 15 against the terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and its allies.

The next few months will therefore be decisive not only for the Middle East. The challenge posed by ISIS is unprecedented and the international community seems to lack the capacity to deal with it.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Daniele Grassi is a writer based in Rome.

(Copyright 2014 Daniele Grassi)

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