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Military or not, US wants Delhi

New Delhi, June 9: Despite Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wondering aloud on the practicality of sending Indian troops to Iraq, the chapter is not yet closed.

High-level sources in the security establishment say an exercise is on to determine what could be the nature and size of Indian participation in stabilisation forces in Iraq. The US is understood to be open to both military and non-military participation.

Washington has clearly indicated that it is deeply interested in a force from India.

However, the US interest is not specific to India but has been expressed as an appeal to several countries, among them Pakistan.

The subject was also broached during US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s talks with deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani in Washington yesterday. (Italy, Romania and Poland are among the countries known to have responded positively to the American request).

The civil unrest and chaos following the invasion of Iraq has created conditions that may force US and British troops to be engaged in Iraq for longer than they had planned and undertake responsibilities that they were till now wary of taking.

India was among several countries invited by the US-UK command to a meeting in London on May 8. The meeting was attended by representatives of about 14 countries.

India did not send a representative to the meeting as the political consultations on Indian participation in stabilisation forces had not gathered steam. However, Delhi is briefed on the subject and is aware that Indian participation is needed “even if it is only half-a-dozen ambulances”.

It is understood that Indian participation may not necessarily be restricted to the use of only military forces. Suggestions that paramilitary forces and medical staff be sent to Iraq are being considered.

India’s participation is contingent not only on its diplomatic advantages and disadvantages in West Asia but also on the US’ answers to clarifications that it has sought on several questions.

Among them: Why are Indian troops needed' Will their job be to maintain law and order or would they also be expected to use force' What will the chain of command be' How long will the troops stay in Iraq' What is the roadmap for Iraq'

The US itself is making public its need to augment forces in Iraq. Elements of the US forces that were earlier marked for withdrawal from Iraq this month may now have to stay on for longer. The US has an estimated 1,30,000 troops in Iraq.

Militarily, Washington’s request to Delhi to participate in some way in the “reconstruction” of Iraq comes against the background of defence relations that are broadening and breaking new ground. India has been invited to send a representative to the Ballistic Missile Defence Conference to be held in Japan this month.

India’s interest in missile defence flows from its “no first strike” nuclear policy that demands the building up of a credible deterrent. Later in the year, India will also send an observer to the White Sands range for a missile defence exercise.

The US and India are also talking a series of exercises with the executive steering groups of the two countries’ armed services, beginning meetings from next month starting with the air forces’ groups next month. Among the joint military exercises planned are special operations wargames in Guam and on India’s west coast.

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