The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Natwar a step too far on Iraq
- Damage in words after long silence

Washington, June 11: On his first major foray abroad as India’s new external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh put his foot into his mouth during the only official engagement he had here yesterday.

To the great surprise of Bush administration officials and to the utter bewilderment of Indian officials accompanying him, Singh told reporters after meeting US secretary of state Colin Powell that although “there is a resolution of the last (Indian) Parliament, in which we had given our opinion that we were against sending troops to Iraq, now the situation is changed”.

If the minister’s suggestion that the new Congress-led regime in Delhi would review the previous government’s decision to stay out of Iraq was music to the ears of Powell and other officials here, they did not show it.

Because, according to sources privy to the Powell-Singh meeting, the Americans had already been left somewhat bewildered by the encounter by the time it was over.

Before Singh met Powell, the Indian embassy here had forwarded to the state department — on the external affairs minister’s express orders — a long bio-data of his.

It described his many qualities and qualifications. Among those was this: Singh was prone to “good conversation followed by prolonged periods of reflective silence”.

On the controversial issue of India’s role in Iraq, it was precisely this quality in the minister that played up, according to the consensus here.

When Singh was asked about the new government’s position, he first said what everyone here, including Indian officials, had expected him to say. “We have been following events in Iraq with very great interest. And we are delighted that the US and the UK tabled a resolution in the Security Council which has been unanimous (sic) adopted. That is a welcomed (sic) step and we have always been in favour of the UN being involved in a central responsibility along with their friends and other members of the Security Council.

“With regard to the question you asked about the Indian troops, nobody has asked us. We will look at the resolution very minutely. We are not in the Security Council. And we will take a decision when the time comes.”

Singh then reflected in silence and interrupted Powell who was answering a question from an American reporter on an altogether different subject.

“Just one second,” interjected the minister. “If I might just go back on the resolution on Iraq.... There is a resolution of the last Parliament on this issue in which we had given our opinion that we were against sending troops to Iraq. Now the situation is changed. There is a resolution unanimously passed in United Nations and there are Arab members in it. We will look at it very carefully.”

He, however, qualified that statement by saying that “we are a coalition government, so the matter will have to be discussed by the government and by the cabinet committee on security”.

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