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Atal to set CCS date on Iraq troops

New Delhi, July 2: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is likely to convene a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security either on the weekend or early next week to discuss the issue of sending troops to Iraq.

The final date of the meeting has not yet been decided as foreign minister Yashwant Sinha and foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal are not in the country. Sinha is on an African tour while Sibal is in the US. Sources said Sibal would be in a position to share the perception and concerns of the Americans on the Iraq issue.

Latest reports from Washington suggest that the Bush administration that had approached a number of countries, including India, to help in its stabilisation effort in Iraq is getting a little desperate over the lack of positive response from most of these countries. Although few have said no to the Americans, most nations have so far not sent any troops to war-ravaged Iraq.

India, too, has so far not given any categorical response to the US request. South Block mandarins pointed out that the “cost-benefit” exercise which the government has undertaken is not yet over. “We are still trying to assess whether we will gain or lose more if we are to send our troops to Iraq,” a senior foreign ministry official said.

Some of the key divisions in the ministry, particularly those dealing with Iraq’s neighbours as well as other key Islamic nations and also those dealing with eastern and western Europe, have been asked to prepare detailed reports giving their assessment of how these countries would react if Delhi decided to participate in the American stabilisation effort of Iraq.

“We have to see whether the decision to send troops to Iraq will strengthen India’s image in the outside world or not. We have to be sure that we are going to restore democracy in Iraq, not to suppress it,” an official said.

The Indian leadership seems to be more worried over how the domestic audience will react to its decision. This will be the first time that Indian troops will participate in an exercise like this outside the UN umbrella.

Knowing the rising anti-American sentiments within the country, specially after the US’ unilateral decision to go to war in Iraq, Delhi is sceptical over the likely response.

But ministry officials are trying to draw an analogy between India’s decision to send peacekeepers in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s with that of committing troops to Iraq, with the hope that Washington would manage to cobble up an interim Iraqi government in the next few weeks.

Moreover, on sending peacekeepers to Sri Lanka, the Rajiv Gandhi government had managed to create a near political consensus, which Vajpayee has so far not been able to achieve.

“Domestic support for the government’s decision is very important. We are trying to consult the political parties, perhaps not all of them, but at least the major ones, to get their view on the issue,” an official said.

Asked whether India was worried that once the body-bags started arriving carrying soldiers, the mood in the country may go against the decision to participate in Iraq, he said: “We had body-bags even in Sri Lanka, but it did not create a stink as there was support for the move. Similarly, an effort is being made to prepare the public to deal with such a situation if a decision is taken to send the troops to Iraq.”

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