NATIONAL

India, U.S. and the Gulf war

NEW DELHI NOV. 24. The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's remarks last week on Iraq have set off an intense speculation among the diplomatic community here on India's approach to the current American confrontation with Baghdad.

Mr. Vajpayee's comment that others should not impose their will on the Iraqi people seemed designed to please Saddam Hussein when one of his special envoys was in town. Many media reports also described it as a direct snub to the Bush Administration.

The Foreign Office scrambled to put out the word that there was no shift in India's position and Mr. Vajpayee's remarks were reported neither accurately nor fully.

It pointed to Mr. Vajpayee's demands that Iraq should fully comply with the United Nations resolutions and give up weapons of mass destruction, and when the international community satisfies itself that Iraq is in full compliance the sanctions must be lifted.

In its carefully articulated position on Iraq, the Foreign Office is silent on the prospect for a "regime change'' in Baghdad. Nor is there any criticism of Washington, which is widely believed to be determined to oust the Government of Saddam Hussein.

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Unlike leaders elsewhere in the democratic world, Mr. Vajpayee does not usually expound India's foreign policy challenges in a comprehensive manner, say in formal speeches.

Instead, brief remarks by him on public occasions tend to get all the attention. Observers of Indian diplomacy are left wondering if the few words from Mr. Vajpayee constitute the essence of policy.

More immediately, to prevent further misunderstanding on the Gulf, New Delhi and Washington need to initiate a substantive political consultation.

Issues relating to Iraq war came up during Mr. Vajpayee's visit to Washington in September; but much has happened since then. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously endorsed the American demands on Iraq, and Baghdad has promised to comply. Meanwhile the Bush Administration is stepping up its preparations for a war against Iraq.

While the cat and mouse game between the U.N. inspectors and Baghdad will unfold in the next few weeks, neither the threat of a war nor the likelihood of a regime change in Iraq has in any way lessened. The U.S., focused so far on the U.N. vote, is reaching out to other key nations in search of political and military support.

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One political hint from Mr. Vajpayee might be that despite the low key nature of its stand, India's expansive interests in Baghdad and its abiding friendship with its people cannot be overlooked by the international community.

Mr. Vajpayee's remarks came amidst speculation that the Bush Administration has agreed to respect the Russian interests in Iraq in a future political set-up in Baghdad. Iraq owes Russia $ 8 billions; Moscow has lucrative contracts to rehabilitate the Iraqi oil fields, including the West Qurna, which has one of the world's richest deposits. It is also eyeing two other important fields Majnoon and Nahr Umar. Russian oil companies also control nearly a third of Iraqi oil exports.

It has been known that Washington had privately assured Moscow on protecting Russian strategic investment in an Iraq without Saddam Hussein. The U.S. President, George Bush, has now gone public. In a recent interview to a TV station in Russia, Mr. Bush said, "we fully realise that Russia has economic interests in Iraq... of course, these interests will be taken into account.''

India too has a similar stake in Iraq — developing its oil fields, recovering old debts and gaining a share in the massive reconstruction of an Iraq free from sanctions. The protection of these interests should inevitably figure in the impending Indo-U.S. talks on Iraq.

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One can only hope that in formulating the policy on Iraq, Mr. Vajpayee is being well served by the civilian and military intelligence agencies. Last time around, on Afghanistan, the agencies were wide of the mark.

Rewind to early November 2001, less than a month after the American bombing of Afghanistan started. Basing themselves on official assessments, both Mr. Vajpayee and the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, went public with their criticism of the American military strategy.

But within days of Indian leaders talking down to the Bush Administration, the Northern Alliance captured Mazar-e-Sharif and a few days later walked into Kabul. This time Mr. Vajpayee should insist that the agencies produce different scenarios for Iraq and have them scrutinised by others. Otherwise India's posturing on Iraq could look pretty silly a few weeks down the road.

It is also time for Mr. Vajpayee to figure out the most likely outcome of the current crisis in the Gulf. The Foreign Office is good at hedging bets.

That is valuable at times, but not good enough when a war is at hand. When the end game begins, it is Mr. Vajpayee who will have to pick, in advance, the winner of the next Gulf War.