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|July 13, 2002|
The Rediff Special/ Ram Naik
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein received a surprise guest last week: Indian Petroleum Minister Ram Naik.
Naik, who was in Iraq to attend the 15th India-Iraq Joint Commission meeting on trade, industry, finance, culture, technical cooperation and oil, was carrying with him a letter from Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He had a two-hour long discussion with Saddam Hussein on bilateral and international issues.
In an exclusive conversation with rediff.com,Naik spoke about his impressions of the Iraqi leader, who is now considered a prime military target for the United States:
This was my first trip to Baghdad and I found the experience unusual. Because of the prevailing United Nations sanctions, we had to first travel to Aman in Jordan. From there, we travelled by road for some 1,100 kilometres, in temperatures that were constantly as high as 44 to 45 degrees Celsius. But the roads were excellent and there were no bumps [smiles].
My schedule in Baghdad began with a two-hour meeting with the Iraqi president. This was the first time I met him but, of course, I had heard a lot about him over the years. After all, he is a personality who has been discussed by everyone, right from the president of the United States to many top leaders in the Arab countries.
There are many people, both in Iraq and India, who were curious about how our discussion continued for such a long time. In fact, the length of our discussion became a news item.
I was eager to meet him because of his unstinted support for India's stand on Kashmir. I admire the way he has conducted Iraq's economic activities -- there has been substantial economic development -- despite the stringent UN sanctions.
When I delivered the prime minister's letter, the president seemed like a rather stern person. But within a few minutes -- after my initial remarks about the prime minister's letter and the state of India, particularly in view of the tensions with Pakistan -- he started responding and I realised he could be flexible and relaxed. He is a firm, but temperamentally moody, personality.
Our discussions were not coloured by any preconceived notions about any religious community. The Iraqi president recalled the historically close relationship between India and Iraq and Iraq's commitment to develop these relations on a long-term basis. He reiterated Iraq's principled support for India's position on the Kashmir issue.
In a special gesture, the Iraqi government agreed to register Indian export houses with the Iraqi ministry of trade, relaxing its policy of dealing only with manufacturers and suppliers who add value to the production process. This gesture, which has been offered only to India, will boost the small and medium sector whose products are often exported through export houses.
During my stay in Baghdad, I also called on Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadhan, Deputy Prime Minister Hikmat Al-Azzawi and Speaker of Iraq's National Assembly Dr Saddoun Hammadi, besides holding fruitful meetings with the ministers of oil, trade, industry and minerals, health, electricity and transport and communications.
They evinced particular interest in our capabilities in the fields of pharmaceuticals, industrial rehabilitation, infrastructure projects, information technology and training. These extensive discussions are expected to boost Indian exports to Iraq. Under the 'Oil for Food' programme, contracts valued over US$ 1.1 billion have so far been awarded to Indian companies.
I also inaugurated the ONGC Videsh Office for Iraq at Baghdad. This will facilitate our exploration efforts for Block 8 and help us acquire oil equity abroad.
The problems regarding the supply of Indian wheat to Iraq have also been satisfactorily resolved. The issue of 'Karnal Bund' infested wheat has been sorted out and Iraq has agreed to accept wheat from states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat where the wheat is free from this infestation. Iraqi conditions relating to tolerance level for organic and inorganic matters are being observed by all wheat suppliers and need to be observed by our suppliers as well.
Petroleum Minister Ram Naik spoke to Shahid K Abbas
Design: Lynette Menezes
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