Washington, Feb. 4: When UN secretary-general Kofi Annan strode into the White House Oval Office yesterday for a meeting with President George W. Bush, there was a collective sigh of relief at India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York.
Annan’s talks with Bush, which effectively brings the world body back to the centrestage in Iraq, caps months of low-profile diplomatic activity towards this objective, in which India played a part in New York, Washington, London and Baghdad.
The last and perhaps the most important phase of these diplomatic exchanges occurred during a long meeting last month here between external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha and former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, who now deals with Iraq in the Bush National Security Council.
Annan did not gloat as he appeared with Bush before reporters at the White House: he would have been fully entitled to do so.
Unable to dismount the Iraqi tiger, with deaths of US soldiers now ranging from one to five every day and completely at a loss to deal with the Gandhian methods of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s to achieve self-rule, the White House has finally and desperately turned to the UN. Yesterday’s media interaction by Bush and Annan was carefully choreographed by the White House lest the President was put on the defensive in front of TV cameras. Questions by reporters were not allowed after the two men made their two-minute statements each.
There was no need for the White House to have been worried. Annan is a very modest diplomat who concentrates on getting things done and not on publicity. But he chose his words very careful yesterday.
He did not endorse or commit the UN to Washington’s self-imposed deadline of June 30 for handing over power to Iraqis so that Bush can claim during the presidential election campaign that he is bringing American troops home.
“The date of June 30 has been suggested, but there is some disagreement as to the mechanism for establishing the provisional government”, Annan significantly said yesterday.
He and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed in New York in September that the yardstick for UN involvement in Iraq should not be the rescue of beleaguered American forces.
On the other hand, the UN must consider the fate of the Iraqi people: Vajpayee and Annan agreed that this was an aspect that was getting little attention, despite its overwhelming importance.
Discreetly, India has been going about its role in working for the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty. Its ambassador, B.B Tyagi, handed over copies of the Indian constitution to those in Baghdad who have been grappling with the challenges of new statutes for the Iraqi state.
R.M. Abhyankar, secretary in the ministry of external affairs, played a part in persuading Adnan Pachachi, who served as president of Iraq’s governing council last month, to return to Baghdad from exile in Abu Dhabi. Abhyankar has also been in constant contact with Kurdish leaders, many of whom are his personal friends from the days he was Indian ambassador in Damascus and later in Ankara.
India and Britain have also been engaged in intense bilateral interaction on Iraq. In a speech which has been under-reported by the international media, British foreign office minister Bill Rammell told the UN yesterday in New York that the world body should take charge of Proliferation Security Initiative, an international effort launched by Bush in May last year which aims to stop the flow of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons material.
Rammell’s demand reflects the British government’s alarm at the turn of events on intelligence failures in Iraq on the one hand and vindicates Indian assertions for decades about proliferation of weapons and technology by Pakistan, China and North Korea on the other.