The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Delhi team on Iraq mission to US

New Delhi, Jan. 30: India has decided to send a high-level delegation to Washington to find out how it plans to bring about a regime change in Iraq — with or without bloodshed.

Led by foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, the delegation will leave on Saturday to start discussions with the George W. Bush administration on February 3.

The foreign secretary’s main discussion will be with his American counterpart, under secretary in the state department Mark Grossman, who has also been the US President’s envoy on Iraq during the past few months.

Indications are that Sibal and his team will meet other key functionaries, too.

India has been stressing that the Gulf crisis should be resolved through peaceful negotiations. Like many other world players, Delhi feels that war at this juncture is in no one’s interest. But if push comes to shove, and Washington goes ahead with armed action against Baghdad, South Block does not want to be caught napping.

But even if hostilities break out, India may not call for large-scale evacuation of its nationals as it did in 1991. One reason is that last time, Iraqi soldiers had invaded Kuwait, expanding the theatre of war. This time, the action is expected to be limited to Iraq. However, India has made arrangements so that it can pull back its nationals from both Iraq and Kuwait if a war becomes inevitable.

South Block officials have rejected arguments from certain quarters that India should have supported the US move on armed action against Iraq to ensure that it gains during the post-Saddam Hussein scenario. They claim Delhi’s “independent” stand has worked in its favour. “Even the Americans understand it and appreciate our stand,” a senior official said.

India is aware that a pro-US stand might lead to more woes than joy, both within the country and outside. Delhi was more than ready to provide bases to the US soldiers during the global campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, but Iraq is a different ball game.

Many in India are not even convinced that Bush has a case to declare war against Baghdad.

However, both India and the US agree on one point. Both are stressing on safeguarding the interests of the Iraqi people, although their views on how it can be achieved are at variance.

There is a view in the US that with increasing pressure, the second rung of leaders in Iraq might decide to get rid off Saddam once they realise that unless he goes, their survival is at peril.

If this does not happen, and a US-led war continues longer than expected, the situation might change drastically. India may have to take a tougher and more critical stand against Washington if there is a large number of civilian casualties.

“Being a country which has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, we cannot ignore such developments in Iraq for a long time,” a South Block official said.

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