| A US soldier takes position on the roof of a building during a protest in Baghdad by Iraqi soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein. Around 300 soldiers and officers took part in the standoff on Monday, demanding payment of their first salaries in four months. (AFP)
New Delhi, July 14: After three months of thought, India today shut the door on America’s request for troops to Iraq, but left a window open saying it would still consider sending them if there was an “explicit mandate” from the UN.
The Cabinet Committee on Security chaired by the Prime Minister did not come out with a categorical ‘no’ to the US request this afternoon. But it preferred to walk the tightrope than despatch troops solely on the request of President George W. Bush.
If the US was disappointed by the decision, it tried not to show it. “Our position has been clear on this. While we had hoped India would take a different decision, the transformation of US-India relations will continue as before,” a spokesman for the US embassy in Delhi said. “India remains an important strategic partner for the US.”
Rising opposition from the Congress and some of its own allies, including the Samata Party, appears to have spurred the government’s decision. Besides, polls to five assemblies are scheduled for the year-end and there is speculation that next year’s general elections could be advanced if the BJP fares well in the states.
The Indian stand has left room for the conclusion that Delhi might have second thoughts if the Iraqi people make a request. But sources said even this would have to be accompanied by a UN Security Council resolution authorising a “stabilisation force”, along the lines of what happened in Afghanistan.
“India remains ready to respond to the urgent needs of the Iraqi people for stability, security, political progress and economic reconstruction,” Yashwant Sinha told reporters outside the Prime Minister’s Race Course Road residence.
The foreign minister said the Centre had carefully weighed the pros and cons.
“Our longer-term national interest, our concern for the people of Iraq, our long-standing ties with the Gulf region as a whole as well as our growing dialogue and strengthened ties with the US have been key elements in this consideration,” he read out from a statement.
Although India has ruled out troops, it is ready to contribute to the restoration of infrastructure as well as medical, health, educational, communication and other civilian needs of the Iraqis, Sinha said.
“As a concrete gesture of our support to the Iraqi people, we are already planning to set up jointly with Jordan a hospital in Najaf.”
The question of sending troops to Iraq has been a tricky one for the government since it was first put forward nearly three months ago. Over the weeks, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra are all reported to have changed their stand from supporting the move to opposing it.
In most of the meetings, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not air his views. But there were clear indications that he was in no mood to rush into anything. Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal has always been against sending troops.
Sinha was noncommittal most of the time. Finance minister Jaswant Singh was said to be the only person boldly pushing the move.
The argument in support of sending troops stressed that it would help India establish itself as a key power beyond South Asia and bring it closer to the Americans. The case against centred on the adverse reaction it could arouse at home if India were to commit its troops without a proper mandate.
There were fears that Indian troops killing Iraqis and getting killed in Iraq under US command would give a strong political handle to the government’s detractors ahead of the Assembly elections.