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US’ new Iraq plan puts India in spot

Washington, Aug. 28: India’s main argument against committing troops to serve in US-occupied Iraq may not hold water much longer.

In a significant climbdown in the face of relentless daily casualties of US soldiers in Iraq, the Bush administration has moved towards the possibility of establishing a UN-endorsed multinational force in Iraq.

Shifting away from its uncompromising stand that the UN must be held at arms length in Iraq and confined to humanitarian and relief activities, the administration this week indicated that it is willing to seek endorsement of the world body for a multinational force as long as it is headed by an American commander.

In remarks to regional reporters, released by the state department, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, refused to be drawn to any detailed discussion on the new plan on the ground that “I don’t think it helps to throw them out publicly right now”.

He, however, outlined the broad contours of the arrangement under consideration as “a multinational force under UN leadership” in which an “American would be the UN commander”.

Officials here said the US has historically opposed any overseas operations in which American troops are not under American command. So this arrangement, if it goes through, would not represent any departure from precedents.

But India would find it difficult to continue to refuse its participation in an Iraqi stabilisation force because the arrangement being contemplated now is modelled on an ongoing peacekeeping effort in the Congo.

In this instance, the UN approved a multinational force to bring peace in eastern Congo, but the troops are led by the French and are not wearing the traditional blue helmets of a UN force. India is taking part in the Congo operations and has sent the Indian air force to help French forces in restoring order.

Kanwal Sibal, the foreign secretary, appeared to be preparing dissenters to this eventuality when he made a key speech in New Delhi a few days ago. In his speech, which is now receiving the intense scrutiny of the administration here, Sibal said: “There has been no US pressure on India” to send troops to Iraq.

The “US would, of course, like India to contribute to the stabilisation force but to say that a request amounts to pressure would be a reflection of an undue sense of vulnerability. We value our relations with the US and whenever possible we should explore issues on which we can work together”.

Alert to the possibility that blue helmets may not run the stabilisation operation in Iraq, Sibai said: “It is clear that there are new realities. Indeed it is bound to be so since the structure and features of international relations have undeniably changed since the 1990s. India recognises the changes and the new realities. The question then is how do we respond to them'

“Our basic approach has been to uphold the principle of sovereignty and of supporting assistance from outside, including the UN, only at the explicit request and consent of the state. Having said this, nevertheless we cannot shut our eyes to the reality around us and of the needs”.

In an obvious reference to Iraq, he said: “In some cases the government is simply not functional, in others the institutions have collapsed or are non-existent: in other words the sovereignty cannot be exercised effectively at all. I would not name examples, but these should be clear to you”.

State department officials are saying privately that Colin Powell, the secretary of state, has already discussed the new arrangement with UN secretary- general Kofi Annan. But the expectation here is that no final decision is expected until world leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, gather in New York at the end of next month for the UN General Assembly.

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