The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Iraq to dominate Moscow talks

New Delhi, Sept. 3: America’s proposal to launch armed action against Iraq is likely to be the main focus of discussions when India and Russia meet in Moscow later this week.

With developments on Iraq also likely to dominate proceedings at the United Nations General Assembly, beginning September 11 in New York, the two sides could coordinate their positions to build the broadest possible consensus among the international community on the issue.

Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who is now in South Africa for the world meet on sustainable energy, will arrive in Moscow tomorrow evening to take part in the two-day foreign-office consultations. The talks begin on September 5.

Sibal’s main discussion will be with his Russian counterpart, first deputy foreign minister Vyachaslav Trubnikov. Traditionally, the entire gamut of bilateral relations is taken up during such discussions. But this time, Iraq will dominate.

Neither Russia nor India is in a position to stop the US from going ahead with its plans to attack Iraq. But America could be thwarted if most countries, particularly allies like Saudi Arabia, voice their opposition at the General Assembly.

Sibal will also meet Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov and other senior officials of the foreign office. The dates of the forthcoming summit between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Delhi later this year will be finalised, too.

Both India and Russia are opposed to an armed action against Iraq. So is China, Germany, France and a host of European nations and the Arab world. “India is not in favour of a conflict nor for a regime change in Baghdad from outside. If any change is to be brought about, it should be left to the people of Iraq,” a senior official of the foreign ministry said here today, articulating the Indian government’s position. But he was quick to add that Iraq should also comply with the UN Security Council resolutions to avert another war.

India feels that a US-led action against Iraq will not only have an adverse domestic impact but would also affect oil prices all over the world and jeopardise the livelihood of millions of Indians in the Gulf countries.

Delhi has come a long way from its 1991 position when the then foreign minister, I.K. Gujral, had gone to Baghdad and hugged Saddam Hussein at the height of the Gulf War. The gesture had not only embarrassed India but also isolated it from the West in general and the US in particular.

India is not planning to do anything as dramatic to express its displeasure with America’s proposal. While Baghdad is a friend, Delhi cannot ignore the ground realities either. To find a middle path, South Block mandarins are now turning to countries which are thinking along similar lines. Russia is one of those that have openly criticised the proposed American action.

Sibal’s meetings with the Russians take place at a time when Moscow has already signed a lucrative $40 billion deal with Baghdad for cooperation in various fields over the next five years.

Iraq is keen that the cooperation extends to defence sectors, with Russian help in building nuclear reactors. Although the Putin government is unlikely to oblige on this front, the two sides may cooperate in the field of energy.

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