The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong softens stand on troops to Iraq

New Delhi, June 14: The Congress, the principal Opposition party in Parliament, may look the other way if the Vajpayee government eventually accedes to the American request and sends Indian troops to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission.

The party may maintain an ambivalent stand publicly, dropping in the process its hitherto strident opposition to the very idea of sending troops outside the command and control of the UN.

A day ahead of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s scheduled weekend meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on this issue, the party’s foreign policy and strategic affairs think-tank continued to intensely debate the issue.

Hectic consultations within the Congress, including the crucial one the party chief had on Thursday, however, clearly pointed to a subtle review of the position that Sonia had conveyed to Vajpayee, on June 4, through a letter.

The June 4 stand of the party was to rigidly oppose the idea of sending troops and was in line with the spirit of the unanimous resolution of Parliament on the US-led war on Iraq in April. AICC foreign affairs department chairman K. Natwar Singh was the brain behind that letter.

However, in the context of the Prime Minister’s invitation for talks and the persistent American requests over the last few days, the Singh line seems to have come up for serious revision.

At the Thursday meeting Sonia had with party leaders, former foreign secretary J.. Dixit, who is fast emerging as her advisor on security and strategic issues, made a counter-point.

Dixit is believed to have argued — with considerable success — that the issue of sending troops should be decided while keeping the country’s national interests in mind.

If the American side could help further pressurise Islamabad to cease cross-border terrorism and if India could advance its economic and high-tech interests, New Delhi should agree to send troops.

Not doing so could only jeopardise national security interests, the former bureaucrat is understood to have said.

About the problems associated with the prospect of sending the troops outside the UN framework, the former foreign secretary is believed to have said: “Both the government and the Congress would have to positively interpret the latest UN resolution on Iraq.” The resolution urged member states to help promote peace and stability in Iraq.

Dixit’s thinking has not found instant favour with Singh, sources say. But Sonia’s decision to bring the former foreign secretary into picture indicates her willingness to be flexible on the issue, they add.

Singh sought to save his line from being replaced by Dixit’s on a crucial policy issue.

The two divergent lines were again debated by Manmohan Singh, the Opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, Shivraj Patil, the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, chief spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy, Singh and Dixit, at a meeting late tonight.

Asked about the position the party might take at the meeting with the Prime Minister, party spokesman Abhishekh Singhvi said: “We are open to constructive suggestions” from the Central government.

It is expected that Sonia would seek clarifications from Vajpayee on the benefits that would accrue to India from sending troops and on the possible conditions and arrangements under which the troops would operate.

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