The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Opinion turns against sending troops to Iraq

New Delhi, July 13: The Vajpayee government is coming round to the view that India has more to lose than gain by sending troops to Iraq. But it is not clear whether it will make a definite announcement tomorrow after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting.

One reason it may continue to hedge is the Iraqi governing council that took shape today. Backed by the US and, more important, with some UN role, the council offers Delhi an excuse to keep a decision pending.

If a request were to come from the council for sending troops, India can pass it off as the voice of the Iraqi people to counter opposition at home as well as cite the fact that the UN has stepped in. A UN representative spoke at the council’s first meeting today.

The 25-member interim council can appoint ministers, approve the budget and review laws, but ultimate authority remains with the occupying powers.

Such a request, if at all, would, however, take time, which is what the Vajpayee government would like to buy. If it can tide over another week, it need not take a decision for about a month as Parliament opens on July 21.

With the Congress as well as the allies objecting to the move, the government is unlikely to risk announcing a decision during the session.

The Samata Party, led by defence minister George Fernandes who is a member of the CCS, today said troops should not be sent without UN mandate.

Even the RSS is opposed to the idea. The RSS objection is not to the principle as such but hinges on India extracting a firm commitment from the US on more stringent action against Pakistan. It has, of course, also pointed out that Iraq is one of the few Islamic countries to have supported India’s stand on Kashmir.

Most worrying for Delhi, however, is the mess the Bush administration and Tony Blair’s government have got into. Their initial assertion for going to war has been torn to shreds with no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq and the increasing belief that both might have lied. In the US, popular tide is turning against President Bush as the death count steadily mounts.

The prospect, therefore, of Indian soldiers meeting the same fate is weighing heavy on the leadership. Although Indian troops will be required to take up peacekeeping duty in northern Iraq, a relatively quiet area, sniper attacks have taken place there also.

Besides, how Turkey, a traditional ally, will react to the presence of Indian troops in an area contiguous to its borders, with the local Kurdish people living on either side, is not quite certain. Foreign minister Yashwant Sinha is expected to visit Turkey early next month.

On balance, probable losses would appear to outweigh benefits by way of oilfields, rebuilding contracts and — far more important — a long-term strategic coalition with Washington. But the accounting has not been closed yet.

The clincher could, however, be opinion within the BJP itself that the risk of being labelled a US lackey is far too great in an election year.

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