NEW DELHI --
Indians have had strong links with Iraq since the
15 century. During the last century, Indians worked in large
numbers to build the country now destroyed by wars. Kul
Bhushan and Shamlal Puri trace this relationship.
Shamlal Puri visited Iraq, a destroyed country, during the
Gulf War with Kuwait in 1990-91 and again in 2008. During both
visits, he found a lot of insecurity and fears of being either
kidnapped or killed.
When the 43 Keralite nurses from war-torn Iraq were rescued,
But another 10,000 Indians are still in Iraq.
Some Punjabi workers are at grave risk.
How did they land there?
Indians went to Iraq for pilgrimage and stayed on.
After Iraq’s independence in 1932, their descendants
assimilated in the country and acquired Iraqi nationality.
They lived mainly in Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad and
ventured into business.
Before World War II, British rulers sent them to build
roads, railways, waterways and postal services.
They also worked as accountants, clerks and technicians.
With the discovery of oil in 1960s, Iraq embarked on massive
construction projects and Indian companies won lucrative
contracts in infrastructure projects and thus Indian
professionals and workers went in thousands in 1970s.
The well-established Indians set up businesses and recruited
more Indians to work for them.
Saddam Hussein took power on 16 July 1979.
He welcomed Indians as he felt they had valuable contribution
to make to Iraq.
In the 1980s, Indians peaked at an estimated 80,000 in Iraq.
Generally, Indians were generally treated well under the
Saddam regime but like any other Middle East country, they
had to comply with the laws of the land and ensure a
Indians, who qualified, were allowed to take up Iraqi
Interestingly, Saddam’s chef at the Presidential Palace
was a south Indian, Khaja Mohideen.
Saddam loved Indian food, especially Rasam and Chicken
Biryani which Mohideen cooked in a special Indian food
kitchen at the palace.
Mohideen now lives in Chennai and ekes out a living as a
street fast food seller.
The Iran-Iraq War 1980 -1988, the Gulf War 1990-1991, US
Invasion of Iraq in 2003 that overthrew and captured Saddam, the
departure of US troops in 2011 and the continued violence under
the elected government had tremendous impact on Iraqis as well
Indians were left with no choice but to leave Iraq and either
return to India or settle in Dubai, UAE and elsewhere.
Iraq’s links with the Sikhs go back to 1520 when Guru Nanak
visited Baghdad on his return journey from Mecca.
Gurudware Baba Nanak was then founded and weekly religious
activities continued until 1989.
The recent wars damaged the holy shrine and now efforts are
being made to rebuild it.
An Indian Central School was established and supervised by
the Indian Embassy.
Apart from skeleton embassy staff, there are less than 100
Indians living in Iraq on short-term visas.
They are mainly United Nations officials or businessmen
seeking trading opportunities under the UN’s Oil-for-Food
With the old-timers fleeing the country, a new wave of
Indians arrived to help with the reconstruction of the
Today, there are just over 10,000 Indians, mainly blue
collar workers living in very tough conditions and no
They are desperate to leave.
Attracted by better salary, unskilled Indians sought any
work to enable them to remit money home.
They got jobs as truck drivers, low-level administrators
and labourers with the US and British coalition forces.
The new wave of Indians is largely construction
labourers, nurses, engineers, missionaries and charity
workers mostly from Punjab and Kerala, but also from Andhra
Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
They went to Iraq chasing new opportunities and fortunes as
the country was rising from the ruins of war and reconstruction
was going on with foreign and local money.
They went where they found jobs:
Baghdad, Tikrit (Dictator Saddam Hussein’s birth place);
Mosul, Erbil, Najaf, Basra, Karbala, among others.
They live in poor accommodation, cooking and eating
Socially, they stick in groups of Punjabis or Keratitis with
little or no cross-cultural socialising due to language
Most illegal entrants originally went to Dubai or Teheran on
visitor visas but failed to find jobs.
Sensing lax security and jobs, Keratitis and Sikhs sneaked
into Iraq illegally for any jobs.
Those who had arrived to work in Iraq legally, in common with
practice in the Middle East, had their passports taken away by
their employers and held as security in case they absconded or
These passports can only be released if the employee was
allowed to travel on annual leave or at the end of their