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Powell set for Dhaka mission

New Delhi, June 13: US secretary of state Colin Powell is visiting Dhaka next week, amid reports of growing al Qaida activities in Bangladesh and in an attempt to win support for the American peace effort in Iraq.

Powell is scheduled to stop in Dhaka on June 19 on his way to Jordan from the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Cambodia. He will meet Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and other senior members of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Though Powell has made several trips to India and Pakistan in the recent past and has also been to Sri Lanka and Nepal, it is a long time since any senior American official has visited Bangladesh.

The significance of the US secretary of state’s trip lies in that it will take place after a gap of some years and give the two sides a chance to exchange views on issues of mutual concern. But Powell is visiting at a time when relations between the two countries are strained over Iraq.

Washington had requested Bangladesh on the eve of the war to expel some Iraqi diplomats from the mission in Dhaka. Though the US request was made to the BNP leadership in private, Begum Zia had announced its rejection at a public rally. This move did not go down well with the American government.

But indications are that Powell will try to iron out the differences and enlist Bangladesh’s support for the US’ efforts to stabilise Iraq.

“The United States values Bangladesh as a voice of moderation in the Muslim world,” US state department spokesperson Richard Boucher said in Washington.

Bangladesh has traditionally sent a large number of troops for UN peacekeeping duties across the world. Though it is not clear whether Powell will raise the issue or will leave it to the Pentagon, his attempt will be to enlist the support of another Islamic country for the American effort in Iraq.

Over the past months, there have been a number of reports of growing al Qaida activities in Bangladesh. Though the BNP government has refused to acknowledge its presence, intelligence reports in India as well as in the West suggest that Osama bin Laden is popular with a large number of Bangladeshi youths.

The fact that the Jamaat-e-Islami is now part of the coalition with the BNP has also given rise to concern in Delhi as well as in other parts of the world over the rise of fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh.

Nearly 50 per cent of Bangladesh’s development budget is dependent on foreign aid, of which the US’ contribution is substantial.

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