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Gulf war signal halts Sinha’s Brussels visit

New Delhi, March 10: External affairs minister Yashwant Sinha has called off an important visit to Brussels later this week, indicating South Block’s view that US-led military action against Iraq will start sooner than later.

Sinha was to visit Brussels on March 16 for the India-European Union troika meet at the foreign ministers’ level. But an assessment by the Indian establishment that a war in Iraq could start in a week prompted the minister to call off the visit.

Sources said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was planning to visit Syria and some Central Asian countries later this month.

The BJP-led Centre, which has come under flak for its muted opposition of the US policy on Iraq, would have liked Vajpayee to visit Syria now. It would have given him the chance to strike a balance in its Iraq stand. The likelihood of a war round the corner, however, appears to have put Vajpayee’s plans on hold.

According to Indian assessment, if the Americans are unable to push through a second UN Security Council resolution, it may not wait for one any longer. France and maybe Russia and China, too, would likely veto the US-initiated resolution and prevent a war in Iraq.

This would prompt the Bush administration to cobble together an international coalition on its own and prepare for military action against the Saddam Hussein regime.

For India, which has so far managed to restrain its criticism of the US, Washington’s attempt to start a war bypassing the Security Council would prove a little more difficult to handle.

The US action would be seen as “unilateralism” by most people in India and would force the Centre to be more vocal in its criticism of the American policy. The likely killings of innocent civilians in Iraq could make things tougher for the Centre as demonstrations against the US, which have so far been muted, would increase in tempo.

South Block officials said as neither Sinha’s nor Vajpayee’s visits were announced officially, the question of calling them off did not arise.

But foreign ministry sources clearly said Sinha has called off the visit and even Vajpayee’s proposed visits are now jeopardised.

Apart from bilateral issues, a meeting with the EU troika now would have helped Sinha to share views on the fast-paced developments on Iraq. Europe’s view on the issue is sharply divided with France and Germany opposing US-led action and other union members rallying behind the Americans.

Brussels is the headquarters of the European Commission and houses the European Parliament as well. Sinha would have had the opportunity there to speak to various European leaders and get their divergent views on Iraq.

Sinha was scheduled to hold talks with the foreign ministers of the EU troika — his counterparts from Greece and Italy, European Commission’s high representative Xavier Solanas and European commissioner for external relations Chris Patten.

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