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Delhi awaits show of Iraqi will

New Delhi, June 29: The answer to whether or not Delhi is despatching troops to Iraq should be known in another three to four weeks by when the coalition forces controlling the country are expected to put in place some sort of a political council manned by Iraqis for governance.

Opinion in the Indian establishment is converging on sending troops with at least one key objection from a top official with experience of working in the region being drowned in the majority voice.

Indians, if they finally go, want to enter an Iraq which is at least nominally governed by Iraqis.

Paul Bremer, the American civil administrator in Iraq, today forecast that this could happen within three or four weeks. Such a council would be chosen entirely by the Americans, as has become clear after US military commanders yesterday ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in provincial cities and towns across Iraq.

Mayors and administrators will now be handpicked by the Americans. Such an administration will be Iraqi in name, but it does provide India with the fig-leaf of an argument that it is sending troops not because the Americans desire it but since the Iraqis wish it.

The ground for such an argument to be made has already been laid by deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes who have said Delhi will take the decision after ascertaining the opinion of the Iraqi people.

This opinion could be expressed through the voice of the Iraqi council the American occupation force will create. Popular rule is not on the minds of the Americans yet. If anything, they are afraid of it.

“In a post-war situation like this, if you start holding elections, the people who are rejectionist tend to win. It is often the best organised who win, and the best organised right now are the former Baathists and to some extent the Islamists,” Bremer said.

Apart from the installation of a so-called representative council, what is of concern to the Indians is what they receive in exchange for the troops.

There are reports of a deal under which the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s overseas subsidiary will work two oilfields in Iraq. Although such an oil deal could run into several thousand crores, analysts believe they are still too small for India to accept such an enormous responsibility as taking up peace-keeping in a turbulent nation.

The contours of the payoff are yet to become clear but talks on a possible troop despatch will continue with the US once a second Pentagon team arrives shortly. It is expected that this time the Indian delegation will have a larger representation from the defence ministry. Two weeks ago, when the first Pentagon team came, they could not meet Fernandes or the service chiefs.

If and when Indian troops land in Iraq, they could find a known face there: of Robert Blackwill, the US ambassador in Delhi now. Blackwill left for Washington last night on an unscheduled trip in the wake of speculation that President George W. Bush has sounded him for the job of special envoy to Iraq.

If Blackwill accepts the job, he would replace Zalmay Khalilzad who is overly burdened because he is also the President’s special envoy to Afghanistan.

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