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Carrot for Iraq troops

Washington, June 9: America is dangling the carrot of Iraq’s reconstruction contracts to entice India into contributing troops for stabilising Baghdad.

When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the unusual gesture of calling on L.K. Advani in his hotel suite within hours of the deputy Prime Minister’s arrival here on Sunday, he let the Indians read between his lines that there would be a carrot for New Delhi if its troops were allowed to help get Iraq back on its feet.

Advani, who has been authorised by the Cabinet Committee on Security to talk about the possible deployment of Indian troops — but not to convey any decision on the subject — responded to the Americans by hitting them where they are at their weakest: their sense of history, or rather the lack of it.

Advani recalled the role of Indian troops after the First World War in the creation of modern-day Iraq in 1932. That role is perpetuated in memory by an obelisk in al Kut in Iraq, which pays tributes to “Hindoos and Sikhs” who lost their lives in the Mesopotamian war.

Advani’s objective in delving into history during his first 24 hours of meetings here was clear. India is not about to repeat history, once decided for it by the British.

In the Mesopotamian war, the Indian troops were in Iraq at the bidding of the British. Replace the UK with the US seven decades later and history will be repeated.

On the other hand, if the UN is involved in nation-building in Iraq, India would be more than willing to help the process not only with troops but other forms of assistance, such as a trained workforce with previous experience in Iraq.

After initial talks between the deputy Prime Minister and American leaders, the contours of the US request for Indian troops for Iraq could be summed up as follows.

Apart from hints of reconstruction contracts in Iraq as a partner in nation-building, Washington would see New Delhi as a close ally in the global fight against terrorism if it commits the troops. Perhaps the closest of allies after the UK and Israel, along with Poland, Australia and Denmark.

The Americans also believe that the Indians could send a message to the Gulf countries if it establishes a physical presence in Iraq, courtesy Washington.

That message could strengthen India’s leverage in the Gulf, where it claims vital interests. It could also neutralise religious extremism in India, which sees some elements in the Gulf as its fountainhead.

The Indian strategy, judging by the tenor of Advani’s talks, is to hold out. Even if, in the end, India sends its troops to Iraq without the cover of the UN, it will be in return for something “very big”.

What is “big” and how “big” will be decided by the collective political wisdom in New Delhi after Advani reports on his talks with US leaders, including President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and others.

The deputy Prime Minister will get a chance to compare his impressions in Washington on the issue with those in London before he reports back to the Cabinet committee.

At the end of his US trip, Advani will confer with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw in London from June 15 during a four-day trip.

Although Advani has travelled halfway round the globe from India, the controversy in the media about Prime Ministerial succession was not left behind.

At a reception hosted by Indian ambassador Lalit Mansingh here last night, Advani sought to set the issue at rest among Indian Americans by asserting that “we will get the people’s mandate once again and Vajpayee would continue to rule India for years”.

He repeatedly praised Vajpayee’s leadership and spoke at length about the BJP-led government’s achievements.

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