A range of responses

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

While India has taken too cautious a stand on the Iraq issue, the general international popular mood is clearly condemnatory of the U.S. aggression.

THE international outcry against what is clearly the most unpopular war in recent history has been deafening. In India too there have been massive demonstrations to condemn the Bush administration's war against the Iraqi people. After the first of the missiles and bombs rained on Baghdad, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement which echoed the sentiments of the global community. The statement conveyed India's "deepest anguish" about the developments, and went on to add that the military action against Iraq "lacks justification". Interestingly, New Delhi has still not explicitly named the United States as the guilty party here.

Influential sections in the ruling party as well as the main Opposition party, the Congress(I), have been reluctant to rub the Bush administration the wrong way on the Iraq issue. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, was emboldened to state publicly in the first week of March that there were no differences between his country and the Indian government on the Iraq issue. Blackwill said that senior Bush administration officials have been holding "intense" discussions with India. The Americans seem to have convinced at least some influential elements in the Indian government that Iraq was indeed hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the increasing scepticism of the international community and the United Nations weapons inspectors notwithstanding.

The MEA's official statement referred to the "serious divergence of opinion among members of the U.N. Security Council on action in respect of Iraq's compliance with Resolution 1441". New Delhi chose to overlook the fact that the Bush administration bypassed the U.N. Security Council when it found that its war project had few takers. All talk about the African and Latin American members on the Security Council siding with Washington had turned out to be wishful thinking.

Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told the Lok Sabha in the third week of February that India could not wait "indefinitely" for Iraq to disarm, a viewpoint that would have pleased Blackwill. As events have shown, the campaign to disarm Iraq was only a ploy undertaken in order to try and expedite a speedy American military victory. Jaswant Singh was standing in for External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha when he made the statement. Yashwant Sinha, on the other hand, had assured the House last year that India would "not let Saddam down".

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee told Parliament in early March that India would pursue a "middle path" on Iraq. He, however, said that India would prefer the issue to be settled under the auspices of the U.N. and through peaceful means. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had turned down the Opposition demand that a resolution on Iraq be passed in both Houses of Parliament. Yashwant Sinha said that the government was against the passing of a resolution at this juncture, considering the fast-changing nature of the developments. This argument did not find credibility even with some of the allies of the BJP such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Somnath Chatterjee said that he was very upset over the government's adamance in not naming the U.S. in its official statement. The Congress(I) also did not insist on the passing of a resolution. It only demanded that the government "tell Parliament what it is planning to do".

Like the BJP leadership, the Congress(I) has shown a marked reluctance to condemn the U.S. openly. Its leaders have seldom participated in the protest rallies against the US. Party president Sonia Gandhi found little time to dwell on Iraq while the crisis was unfolding. The former Iraqi ambassador to India, Sallah al-Mukhtar, had to wait for over a year and a half during his stint in India for an appointment with the Congress president. The Ambassador had only wanted to apprise her about the situation in Iraq.

Earlier in March, the Congress(I) backed out at the eleventh hour from sending its MPs along with a team of Left Party MPs that visited Iraq. Apparently the Congress has been won over to the side of those arguing that India's "national interests" will be better served by adopting a wait-and-watch attitude rather than taking a principled stand.

Sallah al-Mukhtar, however, told this correspondent before he left for his new diplomatic posting in Hanoi, Vietnam, that his country was satisfied with the Indian position. "India's position is better than that of many other countries. The Jordanian Foreign Minister talked about offering logistical support to the Americans while the Saudis are secretly helping the U.S.," said the former Ambassador, who is a high-ranking official of Iraq's ruling Baath Party.

TWO days after the attack began, Vajpayee called an all-party meeting in Delhi. The majority of the parties wanted the government to "condemn" the U.S.-led attack, as most of the world has done. However, all that Vajpayee was willing to do was to express the hope that the military campaign against Iraq would end soon. This time the Congress(I) was more forthcoming in its stance. The party's spokesman said that the war "violated all accepted canons of international law and, therefore, needs to be condemned". The Opposition had unitedly demanded that the government condemn the Bush administration's action, ask for an immediate halt to the military action and settle the dispute under the auspices of the U.N.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who was in Delhi in the third week of March as the special emissary of the Iranian President, had requested the Indian government to use its influence in organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement to get the U.N. Security Council to step in urgently to defuse the crisis in the Gulf. Evidently, New Delhi is disinclined to take any diplomatic initiative as it fears that such a move would rub Washington and London the wrong way. Indian officials feel that Washington has become closer to Pakistan in the last two years. They fear that a big diplomatic price will have to paid if it takes a principled stand on Iraq. In international fora, India is seen to be vulnerable on the Kashmir issue. Besides, the Vajpayee government hopes that the Bush administration will invite it to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq if the latter succeeds with its mission in Iraq.

The Indian position on Iraq seemed to be at odds with the majority opinion among members of the NAM at the recently concluded Kuala Lumpur summit. European Union countries such as France and Germany, the pillars of the Western alliance, were much more critical of the Bush administration than New Delhi was. French President Jacques Chirac said that the Bush administration's actions had put it outside the pale of international law. The Chinese government was among the first to condemn the American action in unambiguous terms.

All these countries have made it clear that those responsible for waging the war on Iraq should bear the costs of its reconstruction. The Bush administration has already unveiled its plans for rebuilding Iraq. The task has been given to private U.S. companies while the U.N. and its agencies have been sidelined. If the war goes according to the Pentagon's plans, it would cost the American exchequer at least $100 billion. This cost will be recovered by exploiting Iraqi oil. It is estimated that the U.S. will have to occupy Iraq for the next decade at least if it is to recover the cost.

Before it went ahead with its invasion, the US could name only 30 countries willing to support it. Even its immediate neighbours, Canada and Mexico, did not figure in its list of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing". It is no secret that the Bush administration was offering financial incentives to the leaders of some impoverished countries to make them jump on to the bandwagon of war. The Turkish Parliament's refusal to be swayed by the huge financial blandishment offered by the Bush administration came as a shock to it.

Turkey's refusal to allow more basing facilities to U.S. troops has complicated the American military and political blueprint. The U.S. had planned a massive pincer attack from Kuwait and Turkey. After the war started, the Turkish government was persuaded to offer the U.S. overflight facilities but at the same time it asserted its right to make a pre-emptive military move into northern Iraq. Turkey fears that the rapid events in the region would lead to the emergence of a de jure Kurdish republic at its doorsteps. Turkey has territorial claims on the northern Iraqi towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, which sit on huge oil and gas reserves.

WHEN this correspondent last visited Iraq in October 2002, a fierce determination was evident among the Iraqi people to thwart foreign aggression. Iraqis from all walks of life knew that a war with the U.S. was inevitable after George W. Bush became the U.S. President.

"It will be the final conflict between good and evil. The devil will be defeated, militarily and politically," said Sallah al-Mukhtar in a recent interview. He scoffed at the U.S. plans to occupy his country militarily for three to four years. "Yes, they will be in Iraq - but underground, buried," he said.

The editor of Iraq News, Nassira al-Sahdoun, an articulate woman who was educated in the West, told this correspondent in Baghdad that even if half of all Iraqis are killed by U.S. bombs, the survivors will keep on fighting from the rubble of their cities. Iraqi officials say that the array of smart and sophisticated weapons that the U.S. possesses will not be sufficient to subdue them in an urban guerilla war. A decade of draconian sanctions seem to have only strengthened the resolve of the Iraqis to preserve their hard-earned independence and sovereignty.

The Iraqi people realise that the "Anglo-Saxon" attack has taken place at a time when the quality of life of the Iraqi people was showing signs of improvement.

The Iraqi Army does not have the kind of weapons it had before the Gulf war of 1991. But the million-strong regular Army, which comprises the elite Republican Guards, is capable of defending the major cities. The Ba'ath Party militia numbers another one million. They too are well trained. Then there is the "Jerusalem army", raised over the last couple of years. According to the former Iraqi Ambassador to India, this army numbers six million people.

The Iraqi leadership had made preparations for a long-drawn-out war. Food and kerosene rations for the next four months were issued at the beginning of March. The leadership was determined to avoid the mistakes of the 1991 Gulf war. Great care has been taken to ensure that radio and television networks do not remain disrupted for extended periods, as had happened during the 1991 war. Lessons have also been learnt from the U.S. war against Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia withstood more than 70 days of unremitting bombardment by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces, but it lost very little of its military equipment.

The Bush administration has realised that the military campaign is not going to be a cakewalk. U.S. officials, right from the U.S. President, warn that the war could be a long-drawn-out one. Visions of U.S. troops being enthusiastically welcomed on the streets of Basra and other Iraqi cities were fading by the day. Instead, the Bush administration is facing worldwide protests and international ostracism.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the Security Council meeting on March 19 as the American war machine rolled into Iraq: "In the past 20 years, Iraqis have been through two major wars, internal uprisings and conflict, and more than a decade of debilitating sanctions. The country's vital infrastructure has been devastated, so that it no longer meets the most basic needs for clean water, health or education. Already, Iraq's most vulnerable citizens - the elderly, women and children, and the disabled - are denied basic health care for lack of medicine and medical equipment. Already, nearly one million Iraqi children suffer from chronic malnutrition."

However, the U.N. Secretary-General wasted no time in recalling the weapons inspectors and other U.N. staff when Bush issued his war ultimatum. Instead of trying to find ways to convene the Security Council, Annan started talking as if he took the prospects of a regime change for granted. He requested the Bush administration to let the U.N. play a role in reconstruction work after the war in Iraq was over. Annan has come in for scathing criticism from Iraqi officials, who have even called him an agent of the U.S. administration.

THE scale of the demonstrations witnessed worldwide has been the biggest since the days of the Vietnam war. Arab capitals are seething with fury. The biggest protests were seen in Cairo and San'a. In many cities, demonstrators tried to storm U.S. embassies. With governments in the region responding with a heavy hand, a few demonstrators lost their lives.

An 11-year-old boy was killed in San'a. Rubber bullets and water cannons were used to disperse demonstrators in Amman and Beirut. Even in the conservative kingdom of Oman, which provides bases for British and U.S. troops, thousands of people participated in protests shouting "Bush and Blair are war criminals".

Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, said that no Arab "with any remnant of conscience can tolerate the bombing of Baghdad, once the proud capital of the Islamic world".

New York City witnessed one of its biggest anti-war rallies two days after the U.S. attack started. At a protest march outside the White House, many demonstrators smeared themselves blood-red. Among the U.S. cities most affected by the rallies was San Francisco where traffic was paralysed and windows of police vehicles were smashed. As more "body bags" from the war scene arrive in the U.S., the protests are expected to become bigger and more spirited.

At the Oscar awards presentation in the last week of March, some prominent Hollywood personalities wore badges to protest against the war. Michael Moore, the acclaimed writer and documentary film-maker whose latest film "Bowling for Columbine" got an award, said in his acceptance speech that America was "waging terrorism" against the world. Another Oscar recipient, the acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, said that the attack on Iraq was against all norms of international law.

Demonstrations have become a daily occurrence in Australia, the only country besides the U.K. to send troops to Iraq. In Brisbane, Mayor Jim Soorley hoisted a U.N. flag at City Hall, in defiance of the John Howard government. He said it would remain there in defiance of the war, until the last Australian soldier returned from Iraq.

In London, more than 200,000 people marched through the streets the weekend after the war started. Pakistan and Indonesia also witnessed huge anti-war rallies in the last week of March.

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