India to decide on role in Iraq

NEW DELHI May 22. As the United Nations Security Council readies an appeal to member-states to participate in the stabilisation and reconstruction of Iraq, the Government will come to a conclusion soon on defining India's role.

A few weeks ago, the Bush administration had suggested that India pick up a big stake in Iraq that could include military operations to stabilise an entire sector. The proposal was discussed at some length in the recent high-level consultations between New Delhi and Washington.

The Government had insisted that it would need a mandate from the U.N. before it could participate in the administration of post-war Iraq. Diplomatic consultations at the Security Council over the last few days have produced that framework.

The European powers — Russia, France, and Germany — who had opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, have now endorsed a formula for the interim management of Iraq after extracting concessions from Washington on enhancing the U.N. role. The new Security Council resolution is being passed under Article VII of the U.N. Charter and the member-states are obliged to support it.

India is fully aware of the historic opportunity at hand in Iraq. Although India has participated in many U.N. peacekeeping operations in the past, this time it will take on a large strategic responsibility in an area of vital interest to it — the Persian Gulf.

This is not the first time, however, that India will take part in an occupation authority in another country. At the end of the Second World War, although India was not sovereign, it was represented in the occupation authorities in Germany and Japan. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided that India would continue this standing after it became independent.

Informed sources here say that ideological questions are not the ones that are at the top of its mind over Iraq. Those will largely be sorted out by the U.N. resolution. It is the practical aspects of joining in the stabilisation force in Iraq that India is now mulling over.

A major Indian role in Iraq will surely signal the emergence of India as a great power in the Indian Ocean region. New Delhi, however, wants to balance this historic imperative with considerations of capability, costs, and the complexity of the situation on the ground.

"A good assessment," sources here say, "of the prospects for success and the potential for failure" will be at the heart of the balance sheet that India will have to prepare in finalising the extent of its role in Iraq.

The Government will have to come up with a view on the size of the force that India can deploy without affecting its own security, the costs of that deployment, and assessment of the political dynamics in Iraq.

The countries in the Persian Gulf, including Iran, are unlikely to oppose a visible Indian role in Iraq. For many of them, an Indian role might be more acceptable than the presence of large Western forces in Iraq.

India is aware of the importance of an early decision. If India chooses to go into Iraq, it makes sense to move in early. Any political dithering now could mean losing a rare opportunity to contribute to the development of a country that traditionally has been a welcoming political and economic space for India.

In the end, the Government's decision is about whether India is prepared to undertake a weighty role in its own extended neighbourhood. Such a role is not merely about rewards; it also involves risks. The debate in the Government over the next few days will reveal whether India is ready for the calling of a great power.

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