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Defence divided on troops to Iraq

New Delhi, June 16: The Indian security establishment is clearly divided on the issue of sending Indian troops to Iraq on an American request. A small delegation from the defence ministry was part of the Indian side in the talks with the Pentagon officials today who were here to push America’s case for Indian troops in Iraq.

The defence ministry delegation comprised the joint secretary (General) and a major general from the Defence Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Integrated Defence Staff that was created in 2001.

Sources said the defence ministry officials were “listening in” on the talks because the decision would have to be taken at the political level and the armed forces will only execute it.

Defence ministry sources said the Pentagon team had wanted to meet with a defence ministry team, too, but that did not take place because sen-ior officials of the ministry are not in town. It is possible that another meeting betw- een an American delegation and defence ministry representatives can take place later this week.

The Indian military had followed the war in Iraq closely and was continuing to monitor the situation in the country through its own sources in the region. Without going into the political implications of sending troops to Iraq, the defence ministry has its own queries for the Pentagon team.

Some of these queries — such as what would be the area of responsibility of Indian troops, what would be the duration of their stay and what would be the command and control structure — have been articulated by the Prime Minister himself.

It is understood that the Americans gave a briefing of the ground situation in Iraq and the sort of role they envisage for Indian troops.

Defence minister George Fernandes, who met Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov this morning, did not speak out on the American request. But defence ministry officials said that a sharing of perceptions on Iraq figured largely in the talks.

Asked if the Indian government had given its opinion on sending troops to Iraq, Ivanov responded by saying that India was a sovereign country and New Delhi would have to take the decision on its own. However — he deliberately added — that the Russians would not send troops.

Fernandes left for Ladakh shortly after the meeting with Ivanov and is likely to return to Delhi tomorrow. Defence secretary Subir Datta is in the UK and the chiefs of the army and the navy are in Russia on separate missions.

Two arguments of strategic considerations have been made in the security establishment in support of sending troops to Iraq. The first is that India falls in the US military’s Pacific Command region but its strategic interests lie mostly in the US Central Command region.

The US Central Command area of responsibility covers West Asia — where India’s energy interests lie — and Pakistan. If India were to respond to the American request by sending troops to Iraq, the Indian military would, for the first time, be interacting with the US Centcom. The US team that held talks in Delhi today included an officer from US Centcom.

The second argument is that India has long-term interests in Iraq and not only for oil. India has been involved in industrial projects in Iraq through the 1970s and the 1980s and some $5 billion is owed to it. Involvement in Iraq on the ground will strengthen India’s chances of re-establishing contact with the new dispensation in Iraq.

The chief argument against sending Indian troops is that India has never sent troops abroad outside UN missions, the exceptions being the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka and an operation to restore the government in Maldives.

On both occasions, the military was sent on the specific request of the respective governments. Moreover, on both occasions, there was no divide in the government because the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi commanded an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

The repercussions of the Vajpayee government sending troops to Iraq in what will inevitably turn out to be in assistance of an invading force “cannot yet be budgeted” — as one official put it — and therefore the PMO will have to evolve a consensus.

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