The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To Bush, with Iraq force reply in bag

New Delhi, May 25: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has convened a special session of the Cabinet Committee on Security tomorrow to take a final decision on whether India should send troops to Iraq for the US-initiated peacekeeping effort.

The meeting has been called a day before Vajpayee begins a week-long three-nation tour on which he is expected to meet among others President George W. Bush. An interaction between the two is likely on the sidelines of a pre-summit meeting of the Group of Eight at Evian in France, after which Vajpayee is scheduled to visit St. Petersburg in Russia and the German capital Berlin.

The move to convene the Cabinet panel on the eve of the departure suggests that the Prime Minister wants to meet Bush with a final answer on the troops. The tricky decision on the troops is being considered by many as the key to the future of Indo-American relations.

Tomorrow’s meeting is likely to be attended by deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes, foreign minister Yashwant Sinha, finance minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra. The foreign secretary, the chiefs of the armed forces and the heads of intelligence agencies are also expected to be there.

A formal request from the US for sending troops to Iraq as part of a multinational peacekeeping force has been lying with Delhi for some weeks. The issue has been discussed at various levels in the government, but no final decision has emerged so far.

The US is keen to have India as one of the peacekeeping players in Iraq. Indian forces have vast experience on peacekeeping duties as they had been deployed in trouble spots around the world, but they have never worked outside the UN’s umbrella.

The unanimous and smooth passage of last week’s US-sponsored resolution at the UN Security Council lifting the sanctions on Iraq has created a situation where Delhi can at least claim to work under the UN and not directly under Washington.

However, for all practical purposes, the command and control in Iraq will be under the US. Delhi is worried about the fallout, on the troops as well as on the people, if Indian soldiers are asked to report to American officers.

Participation in an American military initiative, despite the peacekeeping prefix, could also revive a domestic debate on the perceived “pro-American” tilt of the BJP-led government.

The possibility of public opinion in Iraq — which has counted India among its few friends for long — turning against the troops if the American occupation drags on is also standing in the way of an easy decision.

On the other hand, rejecting the US proposal not only takes away the opportunity from India to play a much bigger strategic role beyond south Asia, but also puts it in a spot vis-à-vis the Americans.

The Indian leadership is keeping in mind the possibility that Delhi’s hesitation will allow Pakistan an opening to offer troops for Iraq. If Pervez Musharraf risks domestic unrest and makes such an offer, it will further bolster his standing in Washington as an ally more reliable than India.

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