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Troops to Iraq await talks parade

New Delhi, June 15: On the eve of a Pentagon team’s visit, the Centre indicated it would strive for political consensus and also hold consultations with Iraq’s neighbours before deciding on sending troops to Baghdad.

The government thus appeared to have gone more than half way in pleasing the Congress, the main Opposition party, which reportedly mooted both the proposals.

Congress sources said “some sort of cooordination with the government” was emerging, though with certain riders.

A wide-ranging consultation with other Opposition parties, however, was necessary so that they do not feel the two main parties, between themselves, sorted out a matter impinging on national sovereignty, they said.

The stand is significant as Parliament’s monsoon session is just a few weeks away and Assembly polls — in which the Congress will be pitted directly against the BJP — are scheduled later this year.

After a 70-minute meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi this evening, external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha said the final decision would be taken in the “national interest”.

The decision, he said, would be preceded by consultations with the “concerned authorities”, the National Democratic Alliance, “interested” political parties and countries neighbouring Iraq.

The meeting, also attended by national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and finance minister Jaswant Singh, was held on the eve of a visit by the Pentagon team which will “clarify” Delhi’s queries on troops deployment.

Sinha was careful not to use the phrase “national consensus” which he said “is Natwar Singh’s comment. There is no need for me to comment on a comment”.

Natwar Singh, who chairs the Congress’ foreign affairs cell, said it was his party’s suggestion that other political parties and Iraq’s neighbours be consulted first. He accompanied Sonia and Manmohan Singh to the meeting.

According to Congress sources, talking to Iraq’s neighbours such as Iran and Syria was “necessary” as these countries were Delhi’s traditional friends.

With the US making threatening noises against both, a perception should not gain ground that India was ready to ignore them for the sake of other “interests”, they said.

“Iran should not turn against India. The US should have consulted other countries in that region but if it didn’t, it doesn’t logically follow that India should do the same before despatching its troops,” Congress sources said.

The party, said Natwar Singh, also iterated its view that if the troops were finally despatched, they should be under UN command and control, not that of the US-UK.

In a letter to Vajpayee on June 4, Sonia had said: “As you are well aware, Indian troops have been active in different parts of the world for the past five decades but always under UN command and control.

“It appears that this fundamental principle that we have always adhered to may now be abandoned.... The Congress party would be totally opposed to the deployment of Indian troops under any arrangement other than a UN command or as part of a multi-national peace-keeping force that has the explicit mandate of the UN.”

Yesterday’s hectic consultations within the Congress had, however, hinted at a subtle review of the party’s rigid position.

Government sources described today’s meeting as an “exploratory exercise” and emphasised that no decision had been taken yet.

Explaining the need for the meeting, Sinha said: “Sonia Gandhi had written to the PM on the question of sending Indian troops to Iraq. The PM thought it best to have a discussion on this, rather than answer through correspondence.”

 

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