Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s visit, long overdue, from today

With over 36,000 visas issued to Iraqis last year and bilateral trade having gone up 10 times during the same period, India hopes to build on this momentum during the first top-level contact between the two governments in nearly four decades.

Both sides hope to accelerate the process with two pacts in energy and water management that will be signed during the three-day visit of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from Thursday.

One reason for the burgeoning bilateral trade was the lack of choice after the United States leant on China, India and South Korea to keep reducing dependence on Iranian oil. Another reason is the traditional goodwill that has kept India-Iraq ties afloat despite political indifference in Delhi.

One proof will be the award of one of the largest reconstruction projects that is in the final stages and is likely to go to an Indian company, thus reviving hopes of India re-entering the project exports segment from which it has been away since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“Iraq was the largest export destination for Indian projects and now that they are again rebuilding the country with adequate resources from oil sales, we are trying to make amends for the goodwill that we had taken for granted,” said an official source while describing Mr. al-Maliki’s visit — his first since taking over as Prime Minister in 2006 — as long overdue.

Iraq has sought India’s helping hand in rebuilding its water management system that was destroyed in the years of conflict. This might help offset part of the foreign exchange outflow on Iraqi oil whose exports to India have touched $ 20 billion annually and are unlikely to reduce, thus restoring the situation of the 1970s and 1980s when Iraq, and not Iran, was India’s second largest source of oil. In fact, say officials, Iraq kept supplying India with oil during the 1971 conflict with Pakistan when many other Gulf states sided with Islamabad and cut off exports to the country.

According to Joint Secretary (Gulf) in the Ministry of External Affairs Mridul Kumar, the old warmth in energy ties could return with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussain al-Shahristani telling External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, during his recent visit to Baghdad, about Iraq’s intention to be India’s reliable partner in the energy sector as part of its effort to broad-base bilateral ties.

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