- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

NEW DELHI, March 10 (UPI) — India on Monday asked its citizens to immediately leave Iraq as war clouds loomed large in the region.

Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said Indian Embassy officials in Baghdad have been asked to move out.

"There are about 50 Indians including embassy staff in Iraq and they have been asked to take immediate steps to leave that country," Sinha said.

The decision came after the Indian government convened an all-party meeting to discuss the Iraq situation.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the meeting that India was pursuing a neutral path, since it enjoyed good relations with both the United States and Iraq.

Vajpayee assured opposition lawmakers that India wouldn't extend facilities to the United States if it went ahead with unilateral military action against Iraq.

India's leading opposition Congress Party and Left Parties called for a parliamentary resolution condemning Washington's threats of any unilateral action against Iraq. The government rejected the demand.

India's opposition parties want the government to oppose the war even if the action is sanctioned by the United Nations.

India is one of a few nations that maintained skeleton diplomatic relations with Iraq after Baghdad suffered international isolation following the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq also has an embassy in New Delhi.

"We have taken all precautions to ensure the safety and security of Indian nationals in that area," Sinha said.

The Indian minister said India had enough oil reserves to sail through any crisis in the event of a military conflict in Iraq.

India has maintained all along that Iraq could be persuaded through peaceful means to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction.

New Delhi says it will not back any military action against Iraq if it did not have the approval of the United Nations.

Last week, President George W. Bush had called Vajpayee to court New Delhi's support for military action against Baghdad.

Although 82 percent of India's more than 1 billion people are Hindus, it is also home to the world's second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia.

There was a domestic political furor after New Delhi gave U.S. military planes refueling facilities during the Gulf War.

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