The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal for return of power to Iraq

Damascus, Nov. 15: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Syria today that India wants sovereignty in Iraq to be handed over to the Iraqi people as early as possible.

While expressing grave concern over the situation in Iraq and West Asia, Vajpayee also set at rest any apprehension that India’s growing closeness to Israel and America might lead to its abandoning of its Arab friends.

Vajpayee was only reiterating India’s policy towards the region. But what was important was the place and the timing.

Vajpayee’s visit comes two months after the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India and at a time when the US Congress has approved further sanctions against Syria. That Vajpayee has gone ahead with the visit in the holy month of Ramazan is a pointer to how important India considers its relationship with the Arab world in general and Syria and Palestine in particular.

In his meetings today, Vajpayee told President Bashar Al Assad that there had been no change in India’s policy towards West Asia; that it was “fully with the Palestinian cause” and called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities and other occupied territories. The occupied territories include Golan Heights that belongs to Syria.

The Prime Minister enumerated the Indian position in his speech at an iftar hosted by Assad later in the evening, saying: “We have consistently called for comprehensive and lasting peace based on full implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 497, and the Land for Peace principle.”

Briefing reporters about the restricted-level talks between Vajpayee and Assad, external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha said: “The Prime Minister told President Assad that the Indian position on Palestine and the occupied territories had been made clear to Sharon during his visit to New Delhi.”

The Indian position on West Asia is in consonance with that of Syria that has twice started negotiations through US mediation in the 1990s. The talks fell apart amid mutual accusations and in the wake of the Israeli elections of May 1996. Syria even now lives in constant fear of Israel. Only a few months ago, Israeli planes bombed an area outside Damascus, an attack that India condemned.

Assad expressed happiness with the visit and, according to Sinha, repeatedly referred to the fact that the Syrians looked at India as a “role model” for the countries of the south.

India, Assad apparently said, had played a stabilising role in the international arena and that, along with China, Russia and Europe, it should provide the leadership for resolving the problems being faced by the world today. He agreed with Vajpayee that the earlier sovereignty in Iraq is handed over to the Iraqis, the better it would be for all concerned.

Describing India-Syria ties as “good and friendly”, Vajpayee said more substance needed to be added to the relations. He suggested enhanced cooperation in the fields of hydrocarbon, railways, power generation and transmission, agriculture and biotechnology.

India also announced a new line of credit to Syria of $25 million and an outright grant of $1 million for the Syrian National Biotechnology Centre.

Nine agreements were signed today by the two countries to increase cooperation in areas as diverse as educational, cultural and literary exchanges, information technology, biotechnology, agriculture and small-scale industries.

A joint group of experts is also to be set up to examine long-term complementarities in the oil, gas and petroleum sector between the two economies.

How would the US view the increased cooperation between India and Syria, which remains in the doghouse with Washington' “I am quite sure that not only the US but others would view India-Syria relations in the same manner as we view their relationship with other countries,” Sinha quipped.

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