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08 Jul 03. Reuters reports that after two years of rapidly improving ties, the United States and India face new decisions that could profoundly affect relations between the world’s two largest democracies.

Those decisions — involving a U.S. request for Indian peacekeepers in Iraq, as well as India’s interest in buying the Arrow anti-missile system from Israel and high technology from America — are roiling debates in both capitals.

With battle-weary American forces under increasing attack in Iraq, U.S.
officials hope India agrees soon. New Delhi has been asked to provide a division — roughly between 15,000 to 20,000 troops — that could command a sector of northern Iraq around the city of Mosul, officials say.

“It would be a major step and mean a lot in terms of U.S.-Indian relations. … This is a significant role in Iraq and would make India one of the major players on the ground,” a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.

In an effort to persuade India to accept the peacekeeping role, a high-level delegation visited New Delhi last month to explain U.S. policy. That would have been unthinkable during the Cold War when India cultivated ties with the Soviet Union. Beginning with the Clinton administration and accelerating under President George W. Bush, Washington has moved closer to New Delhi, propelled by shared democratic values as well as the desire for expanded trade and a counterweight to China.

That has produced vastly more U.S.-India cooperation, including intelligence exchanges, seven major joint military training exercises and visits to India by more than 100 senior Bush administration officials. India’s deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, the government’s No. 2 official, was in Washington recently. With long-standing ties to Baghdad cemented by training Iraq’s military and purchasing Iraqi oil, India would seem an apt U.S. partner in Iraq. But while New Delhi is keen to assert itself in the Gulf, many Indians distrust the United States, opposed the Iraq war, and “don’t want to join hands with us in Iraq,” said South Asia expert Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution.

The administration, which also asked Pakistan to send peacekeepers to Iraq, seems to be playing the two nuclear rivals off each other, he said. Cohen said unless Washington arranges “political cover” for India and Pakistan — U.N. or NATO authorization — “both countries will find a way to say no.” Other inducements may also be necessary, he said.

Another issue concerns India’s interest in purchasing the Arrow, the only operational anti-ballistic missile system. The system is built by Israel and Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA – News), so the sale would require U.S. approval since Washington funded its development.

The administration, which held up transfers of advanced systems to India until tensions with Pakistan eased, recently approved Israel’s sale of the Phalcon Airborne Early Warning, Command and Control System. U.S. officials remain divided over the sale of the Arrow, which exceeds limits set by an international regime aimed at curbing missile proliferation.

Defense officials who favour the Arrow deal say India has a good record of retaining control of advanced technology and has given assurances it would not transfer U.S. know-how to Iran, which Washington accuses of developing nuclear weapons. Opponents do not want to be seen as rewarding India, which like Pakistan tested a nuclear weapon in 1998 and has pursued a vigorous nuclear program despite initial world condemnation.

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