NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Thousands of Muslims in India have signed up to defend Iraq’s holy shrines and, if need be, fight Sunni Islamist militants in the country where the civilian death toll from the Sunni insurgents’ advance is estimated at least 1,300.
Denouncing the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as terrorists, these Indian Muslims have filled out forms, complete with passport-size photographs and photocopied identification documents, to travel to Iraq.
Leaders of Anjuman E. Haideri, the religious organisation spearheading the effort, said they might march to the Iraqi embassy in New Delhi on Friday to deliver the forms.
A Shia cleric is leading the effort and the volunteers want to protect shrines venerated by the sect in Iraq, but the group’s leaders say their cause is not sectarian.
Already at the group’s headquarters located off Karbala Road in a leafy New Delhi neighbourhood, picket signs of “It’s not Shias vs Sunnis (it’s) Iraqis vs Terrorists” have been prepared.
“They aren’t Muslims. Jihad means to defend. Jihad doesn’t mean to kill,” said Syed Bilal Hussain Abidi, a senior member of the group as he showed graphic footage on his cellphone of beheadings and bombs exploding in Iraq.
“We could travel to Iraq to form a human chain to save people from being tortured. We could fetch water and donate blood and do anything to save our shrines,” he said, surrounded by brightly coloured files stacked with volunteers’ forms.
Even though Muslims are a minority accounting for only 15 percent of Indians, they still number about 175 million, making them the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
Whether the volunteers will be granted visas and allowed to travel to Iraq is not clear. Officials at the Iraqi embassy were not immediately available to comment.
India’s foreign ministry has said it will not allow Indians to go to Iraq because of the security situation in a country where 40 Indian hostages are being held in an undisclosed location and 46 Indian nurses are stranded in Tikrit hospitals.
But Syed Bahadur Abbas Naqvi, the group’s general secretary, said that since the Indian government does not plan to send forces to Iraq, the supporters have little choice but to head over there themselves.
So far, the volunteers, who range from engineers to students and police officers, have signed a form that says: “I firmly believe that terrorism of all kinds including the one which is being inflicted by known terror groups in Iraq is not only a serious threat to innocent Iraqis (irrespective of their religious beliefs) but is also a threat to the entire humanity.”
The group said it has 100,000 signatories from across India and has held several demonstrations “against terrorism” in Delhi and other cities.
The group wants to defend shrines spread across Iraq in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, Samarra and Kirkuk, but also stem the rise of crude oil prices that have shot up as a result of the crisis and could hit importer India hard.
“If they need help, we’re ready from Hindustan,” said Dilawar Abbas, a group member, using another name for India. If the ISIL is in Iraq right now, “tomorrow they can be in India.”
Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie