The taking into custody of 40 Indians, drawn into the crossfire of a bitter power struggle in Iraq between an assertive but marginalised Sunni minority and the government led by President Nouri al-Maliki, has brought into focus the Narendra Modi government’s crisis management skills. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadi group, is apparently behind the detention and relocation of the workers, who are from Punjab, into a cotton warehouse in the vicinity of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city that is an ethnically divided demographic powder keg. Yet, there are indications that Sunni tribesmen, who may not share the ISIS’s virulent extremist ideology but are in a tactical embrace with it in order to counter the government of Mr. Nouri al-Maliki, which has Shia overtones, are holding the victims. The detentions, along with the entrapment of 46 nurses in a Tikrit hospital, is cause for deep anxiety; the crisis has dwarfed the 2004 abduction and release of three Indian truck drivers near Baghdad. Apart from India, countries such as China and Turkey, whose nationals have been detained in large numbers, are experiencing the pain. The blowback of the incident has hit the government hard, persuading External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to meet the distraught families of the victims, who have no option but to seek solace from the Central government.

The government is facing a complex crisis that has to be tackled at multiple levels. In order to get the hostages released, New Delhi is apparently using the channels of the Iraqi Red Crescent to communicate with the militants. Its immediate worry is to ensure safe passage that would allow the evacuation of the workers from their present locations to the Kurdish-dominated Erbil airport, which is much safer, geographically and otherwise, than the battle-hit route to Baghdad heading towards the south. But the government has to worry beyond the immediate, for a crisis of much larger proportions can emerge should fighting spill into the oil-rich south, where a large proportion of the 20,000 Indians in Iraq live. The danger of an escalation of regional upheavals is real if Iran, in supporting the Shia-dominated south, gets embroiled in the crisis — possibly creating a spiral of tensions with rival Saudi Arabia. Finally, New Delhi has also to be prepared for the internationalisation of the events in Iraq, as well as a sharp and painful spurt in oil prices, especially if the United States chooses to launch air strikes against opposition strongholds. For this could raise concerns in Russia and China that have been reacting vigorously to events in West Asia, especially Syria, in the aftermath of the 2011 fall of Qadhafi in Libya.

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