The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal waits for Iraq consensus
- Troops to be sent if Congress agrees

New Delhi, June 14: The Centre will not send Indian troops to Iraq unless a political consensus is thrashed out.

Official sources said the government’s stand was likely to become clear tomorrow after Atal Bihari Vajpayee meets Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. The Prime Minister had set up the date to brief Sonia on Iraq.

The Congress has so far stridently opposed the American request to send troops but today there were indications it might pipe down. Former foreign secretary J.. Dixit is believed to have advised Sonia that India’s chances of bargaining with the US vis-à-vis Pakistan would strengthen if the troops were despatched.

The Centre’s prime concern is to secure the support of the Congress — the main Opposition party — as this will act as a buffer against any attack non-BJP parties might mount during Parliament’s monsoon session next month.

The Sangh parivar and the BJP — which initially opposed the proposal — are inclined to back whatever decision the government takes without offering even token criticism.

“As of now, the government’s stand is at the stage of asking questions and seeking clarifications on the matter. It is not weighted on either side, for or against,” a source said.

The sources indicated that even if the Congress came half way, a hasty decision would not be taken. Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal will go to Washington in the first week of July to seek more clarifications.

Explaining the pros and cons, sources said there had been occasions when India had sent troops to foreign soil as in the cases of Sri Lanka and Maldives. But that was on the invitation of the respective governments.

In the case of Iraq, Indian troops were likely to be “far more acceptable” as the relations between the countries were “harmonious”. Moreover, India had enshrined its opposition to the presence of US-UK coalition forces in Iraq in a parliamentary resolution.

“In that sense, India could play the role of a genuine peace-keeper,” a source said.

What is bothering the Centre is whether sending the troops —especially since it is not clear whether they will function under the command of the US or the UN — will be looked on as compromising Indian sovereignty.

The Centre is also keen that the Indian Army should not be seen as a “mercenary arm of the US”. “The ideal situation would be if the US were to give India total command over a part of Iraq without being under their command,” a source said.

The BJP today toed the government line. “We are sure whatever decision the government takes will be in the country’s interest,” general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.

The RSS, too, seemed to have toned down. “Our first reaction would still be to oppose it. But we do stand to gain in many ways if our troops are sent. It will give India a political edge over other countries in the quest for a political solution in Iraq…,” an official said.

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