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Why India must oppose war with Iraq

December 26, 2002

It was the first real war that CNN brought live to our living rooms.

And the world just couldn't get enough of Operation Desert Storm, which, says CNN,  officially started January 17, 1991, at 2:38 am  Baghdad time, and was beamed live to viewers across the globe.  
The next day, US President George H W Bush senior told the nation that apart from 'liberating' Kuwait,  the objective of the attack was to destroy Iraq's nuclear potential and its arsenal of chemical weapons.

'Aggression is defeated, the war is over,' he told Congress nearly three months later, on March 3, 1991, after the carpet bombing had reduced most of Iraq to rubble.

But despite crippling UN sanctions and the quartering of Iraq into no fly zones since then, despite the continuing strikes on Iraqi facilities over the past decade, the aggression was obviously not defeated. Neither was Iraq's ability to indulge in nuclear, chemical and biological mischief dented. 

So some 12 years later, Desert Storm II aims to finish what its earlier version could not. 

He's a ruthless thug, a dictator. He's a psychopathic killer. Ever paranoid, he employs a dozen doubles to keep the enemy within and without forever guessing. 

Yet India continues to count Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a friend.

During the first Gulf War, New Delhi, citing domestic pressure, hastily cancelled refuelling rights for US aircraft being used to pound Iraq. That 'privilege,' and money, ultimately went to Sri Lanka.

Throughout the past decade, India's position has been steadfast: the 'unwise' and 'unjust' sanctions must be lifted. But at the same time, it stayed on the fence by reiterating that Iraq should comply with the UN resolutions and forswear weapons of mass destruction. 

Meanwhile, high level delegations kept shuttling between the two nations. In fact, 'several MoUs were signed between the two sides in petroleum exploration and drilling and railways, subject to lifting of the UN sanctions,' says the MEA web site on ties with Iraq.

But  'While India has been scrupulously adhering to UN economic sanctions and has prohibited trade and banking transactions with Iraq, unless approved by the UN Sanctions Committee, we have, at the same time, been endeavouring to assist Iraq within the areas permitted by the sanctions. We have offered training facilities and scholarships. We have been sensitive to the human suffering in Iraq and donated medicines and food items such as wheat, tea, sugar, rice, baby food and textbooks as humanitarian relief, ' it adds.

What it does not add is that India was to export 350,000 tonnes of wheat to Iraq last year under the United Nations' food for oil programme, but the transfer was stopped after Baghdad rejected three consignments in May last year, citing quality concerns. It was only in July this year that Iraq agreed to accept wheat from some specific Indian states.

So, while India has trouble talking to military dictators like Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, it has no problems dealing with Saddam. And while India objects to, among other things, various 'intrusive' clauses in the now dead Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it feels that Saddam ought to comply with the UN resolutions which demand that Saddam expose and renounce his weapons programme.  

The reasons for this are not hard to find.

Musharraf sponsors terrorism in Kashmir and other Indian states. Saddam firmly and consistently backs India's stand on Kashmir. Pakistan does not have any economic importance for India, except for the strain it puts on security forces in Kashmir . Iraq sits on the world's second largest oil reserves.

In July, ONGC Videsh Limited, a subsidiary of ONGC, sought to form a venture with two other partners to produce crude from Iraq's Tuba oil field. It is awaiting approval from its board to invest approximately $63 million in Iraq, says the Russian newspaper Pravda.

So while India does not want to be seen as opposing any UN move to oust Saddam, it also wants to ensure that its stake in Iraq does not get diluted.

In a recent speech to the Indian chamber of commerce in Kolkata, American Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said: 'In the context of numerous US-India high level exchanges in recent months, the Government of India stoutly believes that Iraq should fully comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which orders Iraq to give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction. India earnestly hopes that Iraq will disarm peacefully. The Bush Administration steadfastly agrees with both these crucial propositions advanced by India.'

What he did not mention was that India, like many other nations, was vehemently opposed to any unilateral US action against Iraq.  What he did not mention was that while many in the current government were not averse to the US policy of militarily 'nudging' nations towards democracy, particularly nations known to foster terrorism. India, with its large Muslim population, is definitely averse to openly endorsing any war on Iraq if it is widely perceived as part of an anti-Muslim crusade.

Strangely enough, Iraq was known  for its modern and secular outlook before the last Gulf War, and the evidence linking Saddam with Al Qaeda, despite many such reports, is scanty at best. For reasons best known to itself, Washington is loathe to release any conclusive evidence it may have on this nexus.

During the last Gulf War, India had to hastily evacuate thousands of its citizens working in the region.  But that problem is unlikely this time since there are very few Indians in Iraq. And if things go according to American plans, the war is unlikely to spread beyond Iraq's borders. But that is a big if. 

Given the age-old relations with Iraq and the burgeoning relationship with the US, perhaps sitting on the fence is the only option left for India, even though it doesn't quite gel with the image of a wannabe regional power, eager to make its presence felt on the world stage. 

Over the last 40 years, the United States has bombed Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.  And now it plans to bomb Iraq again.

India must remember that supporting the UN demand that Iraq destroy its nuclear/biological/chemical weapons sets a precedent. It must have the necessary responses ready in case the same ultimatum is issued to India tomorrow. 

And the US must remember that after the last Gulf War, a Saudi millionaire objected to the presence of US troops on his nation's 'holy soil.'  His name was Osama bin Laden.


Ramananda Sengupta

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