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US general’s visit puts Delhi in spot

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The chief of the US army, General Eric K. Shinseki, is expected to visit New Delhi next week amid the possibility that Washington will request support if the conflict over Iraq escalates to war.

Indian support to a war effort against Iraq is a prickly issue not only because New Delhi has diplomatic ties with Baghdad but also because it can stir a political controversy.

Defence ministry sources said here today General Shinseki was on a scheduled visit and put down his arrival here at the head of a 14-member delegation to a formality. Late last year, the then Indian Army chief, General S. Padmanabhan, had visited the US. Defence sources described General Shinseki’s attendance in New Delhi as a “return visit”.

General Shinseki is scheduled to meet the defence minister, George Fernandes, and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, on February 3. He is expected to land in New Delhi on the evening of February 2 and departs for the Philippines early on February 4 by a special US Air Force plane.

It is of some significance that General Shinseki should find the time to visit India en route to the Philippines when the military build-up around Iraq by the US and its allies continues apace.

During the 1991 Gulf War that broke out after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US had sought and got refuelling facilities in Mumbai. Even during Operation Enduring Freedom — the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan last year — US warships steaming from the US Pacific Command had docked in Chennai and off Mumbai.

In the US military’s division of responsibilities, India is covered by the Pacific Command (Pacom). (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf by the US Central Command — or Centcom).

Defence sources officially said “any help the US may require for the war effort does not have to be sought at the level of army chiefs but at the undersecretary of state level”. The formal extension of support by allowing refuelling and landing facilities will have to be processed through the ministry of external affairs for which a structured, institutionalised arrangement exists.

Since last year, military-to-military cooperation between India and the US has been intensifying. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have been providing escort services to merchant vessels passing through the Straits of Malacca after and understanding with the US. India and the US have also signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement and the armies are carrying out a series of joint exercises.

Despite deploying air craft carriers and having bases in the Gulf, the US had mobilised forces from its Pacific Command for Operation Enduring Freedom. The US has bases in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, in Fukuyama, Japan, and Subic Bay, Philippines. Marines, aircraft and warships heading to the Gulf from these bases can require refuelling and repair assistance from India.

The sources said General Shinseki will be given a briefing by army chief General N.C. Vij, and his team on India’s security concerns in the region and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir at army headquarters. The briefing will be followed by a dialogue on points raised by either side.

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