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Delhi gears up for Iraq minus Saddam

New Delhi, Dec. 1: A shift in India’s Iraq policy is underway. Despite the brave public front, South Block has started gearing up for a situation in which even if a war in Iraq is not inevitable, at least a change in regime is.

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra, who leaves for Washington next week, will discuss with the Bush administration, among other things, a post-Saddam Hussein scenario in Baghdad where Indian interests are not jeopardised.

Topping India’s agenda are the contracts it has won in Iraq’s oil sector. Among them are the agreements signed between ONGC Videsh and Oil Exploration Company for exploration of a block in southern Iraq and to develop the Tuba oil field. If Saddam goes and is replaced by a pro-US regime, India does not want to be caught in a situation in which its interests are harmed.

Mishra, who is scheduled to have detailed discussions with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice and other senior US officials, will try and find out what Washington is planning for Iraq. He will sensitise the Bush administration to Delhi’s concerns and see where India fits in in the changes the US proposes for the Gulf nation.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said last month that India would not support any change of regime in Iraq imposed from outside. A few days ago, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha told Parliament that Delhi “will not let down its friend Saddam Hussein”. But both said Saddam will have to follow the UN Security Council resolution in letter and spirit to avoid a war.

India’s stakes in Iraq and in the neighbouring Gulf region are high. It has over 10.5 million citizens in the area and earns about $6 million from the remittance they send back home every year. More important, the region is India’s main source of energy.

A repeat of Operation Desert Storm will adversely affect this source of energy and could force oil prices to soar. This, in turn, will trigger prices of other essential items to shoot up. Predictably, it will hurt the Indian economy and may not allow it to achieve the 5 per cent growth rate it aspires to reach. It will also disrupt the lives of the Indian diaspora in the area and Delhi may have to make urgent arrangements to bring them back home.

But these losses are short-term. South Block mandarins are busy assessing what India stands to gain in the long run. “While our foreign policy is principled, it must not ignore national interest,” an official in the foreign ministry said, arguing that Delhi must take note of ground reality.

Although a war in Iraq has been stalled for the time being, no one can say for sure whether it has been totally avoided. Even if Saddam agrees to comply with the UN resolution and cooperates with the arms inspectors, there is no guarantee he will be able to save his chair. India believes that sooner or later, he will have to go. So, it is prudent for Delhi to be prepared for a scenario in which a new regime is installed in Baghdad by the US.

As the other major players, including India’s traditional ally Russia, have started making the necessary changes to adapt to a post-Saddam scenario in Iraq, Delhi feels it will be foolish of it to not take similar steps to safeguard its interests in Baghdad.

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