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Telegram and a man in Baghdad

Washington, July 14: In the run-up to the decisive meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, two things helped firm up opinion against immediately agreeing to the US request for Indian troops to serve in Iraq.

One was a telegram from the Indian embassy in Washington which gave a graphic account of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s startling inability last week to give cogent answers to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of Iraq.

The second was the presence in Iraq yesterday of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative for Iraq, at a meeting of the “governing council” set up with the aim of sharing power with the Americans in the occupied country.

The telegram from the embassy spoke of how Rumsfeld did not know how much the US military operations in Iraq was costing their treasury every month, how he could not tell senators for sure if the Pentagon had asked for help in peace-keeping from France and Germany and how leading Republicans like Senator John McCain were saying that “Americans are unsure about the future of our involvement in Iraq” and that there was “unease” about the situation.

The telegram also quoted General Tommy Franks — the man who planned the war in Iraq, but stepped down last week from his command — and Rumsfeld disagreeing openly about the number of US troops needed for Iraq.

The general told the committee that 150,000 US troops will be needed in Iraq for the foreseeable future, but the defence secretary challenged that assertion and said “nobody knows the answer to that question, how long it will take”.

In short, the telegram on the basis of which CCS members were briefed, spoke of uncertainty, ignorance and lack of any cohesion in Washington’s Iraq policy, which raised the spectre of a disaster for any Indian troop deployment in Kurdish areas.

The UN’s special representative, de Mello, was the only non-Iraqi to speak at the first meeting of the “governing council”, according to inputs received in South Block. Even the US viceroy, Paul Bremer, did not take the floor.

This was interpreted to mean that Washington was reluctantly beginning to accept the inevitability of UN involvement in the Iraq quagmire.

The UN has so far stood firm and refused to accept US attempts to foist any Iraqi puppets on the world body. Yesterday, one of the first decisions by the new council was to send a delegation to the UN in an effort to “assert and emphasise the role of the governing council as a legitimate Iraqi body during this transitional period”.

The Indian statement after the CCS meeting is, therefore, not being interpreted here to mean that New Delhi has closed the subject. On the contrary, assessments in diplomatic circles here suggest that with the eventual inevitability of a UN role in Iraq, India would rather wait for that less controversial phase of the occupation before committing its armed personnel.

“India remains ready to respond to the urgent needs of the Iraqi people for stability, security, political progress and economic reconstruction,” the statement said.

“Were there to be an explicit UN mandate for the purpose, the Government of India could consider the deployment of our troops in Iraq.”

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