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Armitage good conduct test for ISI

Washington, May 6: If US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage’s imminent visit to New Delhi goes off without any violence in Jammu and Kashmir, it will be because of one man’s presence here during most of this week.

The Bush administration, it is understood, has firmly told General Ehsanul Haq, head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that the ritual of massacres in Kashmir on the eve of major US visits to New Delhi must not be allowed to happen this time.

Starting with the massacre of 36 Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir on the eve of the official trip by President Bill Clinton in March 2000, every major visit to India by administration officials has been shadowed by a terrorist killing.

The Bush administration is emphasising that for the first time since it assumed office, a senior official is visiting India and Pakistan not to defuse a crisis, but to nudge the two countries towards something positive.

The urgent summons to the ISI chief for parleys in Washington immediately after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace offer to Pakistan is considered here to be crucial.

Notwithstanding General Pervez Musharraf’s professed support to America’s war on terrorism, officials here consider the ISI a loose cannon. They suspect the organisation of still trying to fan the flames of terrorist violence not only in Kashmir, but also in Afghanistan, even though some US officials insist that this is done by individual operatives and not as policy.

Normality in Kashmir in the run-up to and immediately after Armitage’s visit to India will be seen here as proof of the ISI’s commitment to the fight against terror in which the US and Pakistan have pledged to be partners.

Recognising that there can be no durable progress towards peace between New Delhi and Islamabad without reining in the ISI, Haq is getting unprecedented access here of the kind that has not been given even to visiting heads of Israel’s Mossad.

He met Armitage before the deputy secretary left on his visit to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Haq’s itinerary is not being made public.

But sources said he will meet Vice-President Dick Cheney, secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and homeland security chief Tom Ridge.

Meanwhile, Armitage, who is half way to the subcontinent today, is trying to lower expectations from his visit to the region.

“I think we have got a lot of work to do to continue to lower the temperatures for two great countries India and Pakistan to be able to live in peace and stability with each other,” he said shortly before he embarked on his week-long trip.

Armitage’s cautious optimism contrasted with the exuberance of his boss, Powell.

“This is a moment of opportunity where both sides are reaching out,” Powell said of peace moves between India and Pakistan as Armitage got on his plane. “The US will be ready to assist both sides as they move forward. We should appreciate positive development and build on it.”

Powell’s enthusiasm is being attributed here to his desperation for his team to show results somewhere at a time when the state department is under fire and is losing out to Pentagon hardliners headed by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Armitage also cautioned against expecting too much from a Pakistani proposal to get rid of its nuclear weapons if India did the same. He described it as a “good gesture and that would be a great sign of enormous progress... but I think we have to keep our appetites under control”.

Aware of sensitivities in India about any third party role in Kashmir, Armitage also made it plain that the entire credit for the latest peace moves went to leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad.

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