March 30, 2011


[The national teams of India and Pakistan have both advanced to the semifinal round of the cricket World Cup tournament. When it became clear that the teams would meet Wednesday afternoon in the Indian city of Mohali, the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, issued a surprise invitation to his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to join him in the grandstand.]

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NEW DELHI — With careful diplomatic scripting, India and Pakistan began talking again this week. Officials from the two countries convened in New Delhi to discuss security issues and pave the way for future meetings between more powerful officials. The talks were billed as baby steps, a modest restarting of an important diplomatic dialogue that had stalled.
Then, unexpectedly, a cricket match intervened, and almost overnight, the scope and possibilities of the dialogue have changed.
The national teams of India and Pakistan have both advanced to the semifinal round of the cricket World Cup tournament. When it became clear that the teams would meet Wednesday afternoon in the Indian city of Mohali, the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, issued a surprise invitation to his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to join him in the grandstand.
Mr. Gilani has accepted. The prospect of the two leaders’ sitting together for hours in a relatively informal setting has many here asking what they will talk about, and whether a breakthrough could be possible between the two fractious, nuclear-armed neighbors.
For the Indian subcontinent, where few things stir public passions more than cricket and politics, the twinning of such a high-stakes match with such high-stakes diplomacy has created an irresistible spectacle. An enormous audience is expected to watch the match on TV, and India has ordered a sweeping security clampdown in Mohali, including closing the city’s airspace.
Mr. Singh’s invitation — it was also extended to the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, who declined — is another example of how Mr. Singh has repeatedly tried to advance diplomacy with Pakistan, often over the resistance of the Indian political opposition and even some members of his own Indian National Congress Party. In New Delhi, Mr. Singh’s overture has drawn a mixed reaction: some analysts praise his determination to push forward while others call the invitation a political stunt that risks undermining the lower-level talks that began this week.
“It has caught everybody by surprise,” said Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs analyst in New Delhi. “In diplomacy, you have to do the preparatory work first if you want to have a result. This sounds like an impulsive move.”
Harish Khare, a spokesman for Mr. Singh, described the invitation as a “spur of the moment” decision. There will be no specific agenda or any structured dialogue, he said; rather, it will be an opportunity to build trust, enjoy the match and have “an exchange of ideas.”
“The prime minister just said, ‘Come along,’ ” Mr. Khare said. “Of course, there will be some talk. But it is not a summit meeting. And it will not interfere with the ongoing dialogue.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the two countries were founded in 1947, and their unsettled relationship lies beneath many of South Asia’s most festering problems, including their dispute over Kashmir, lasting decades. Diplomatic progress was shattered in 2008when militants based in Pakistan mounted terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed at least 163 people. The United States has been prodding both countries toward negotiations in the hope that if tensions are defused, the Pakistani military would withdraw troops from the Indian border and focus more attention on fighting terrorist groups inside Pakistan.
The meetings that began Monday in New Delhi were supposed to be the initial step in this latest resumption of the dialogue. Qamar Zaman, the Pakistani interior secretary, and G. K. Pillai, the Indian home secretary, met on Monday and Tuesday to discuss the Mumbai attacks and other security issues. India has demanded that Pakistan bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, and has accused Pakistani officials of deliberately dragging their feet in the investigation. But those meetings were upstaged by the cricket overture.
Analysts noted that cricket diplomacy has been tried in the past, with mixed results. President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan attended an India-Pakistan match in 1987, but relations between the countries soon deteriorated. In 2005, Mr. Singh invited President Pervez Musharraf to an India-Pakistan match in New Delhi, ushering in a period of secret back-channel talks that almost culminated in a deal on Kashmir.
Now, though, many analysts say the political situation is far different. Both Mr. Gilani and Mr. Singh are politically wounded at home; Indian analysts argue that Mr. Gilani is actually far less politically powerful than the country’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and is not in a position to make any sort of significant deal. Meanwhile, Mr. Singh has been battered at home by allegations of corruption leveled against his government. His foes argue that the cricket overture is mostly intended to distract public attention from the domestic controversies.
Yet the invitation does seem to have enhanced a feeling of good will on both sides. This week, Pakistan announced the early release of a longtime Indian prisoner, if admittedly by only a few months. And Tuesday, Pakistan agreed to a visit by an Indian judicial commission investigating the Mumbai attacks.
“You will see relations become more friendly and cordial, even outside the cricket grounds,” predicted Abid Saeed, the press counselor for the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. He said a delegation of about 50 ministers and officials was traveling with Mr. Gilani.
C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, applauded Mr. Singh’s gambit, noting that for all the highly structured meetings by lower-level officials, progress is usually made when the top leaders are directly engaged. Mr. Mohan said that if the cricket diplomacy resulted in warmer relations, Mr. Singh should visit Pakistan as his next move.
“Right or wrong, India’s Pakistan policy has always been driven by the gut instincts of the prime ministers rather than the carefully crafted approaches by the diplomatists,” Mr. Mohan wrote on Tuesday in The Indian Express, a leading English-language newspaper. “If the mood at Mohali turns out to be good, Dr. Singh and Gilani might help give the dialogue at the bureaucratic level a much needed boost.”
Heather Timmons contributed reporting.
@ The New York Times

[Although the 40 world leaders meeting in London pledged humanitarian aid and continued airstrikes to protect civilians, they indicated that it would be up to the Libyans themselves to force Gaddafi out, leaving it unclear how they were supposed to do so.]

By Liz Sly and Joby Warrick,

TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebel fighters fled under fire from a key town in eastern Libya on Tuesday as world leaders convening in London insisted that Moammar Gaddafi step down but offered no new suggestions for how to dislodge him from power.

The rebels’ chaotic retreat from the town of Bin Jawwad, which they had captured from troops loyal to Gaddafi just two days earlier, reversed the momentum they had seized over the weekend and suggested that the ad hoc and lightly armed opposition force may have reached the limits of its capacity.

It was the fourth time Bin Jawwad has changed hands in less than three weeks, raising the specter of a prolonged stalemate along the sparsely populated stretch of coastal highway between the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to the east and Gaddafi’s heavily garrisoned home town of Sirte to the west.

Although the 40 world leaders meeting in London pledged humanitarian aid and continued airstrikes to protect civilians, they indicated that it would be up to the Libyans themselves to force Gaddafi out, leaving it unclear how they were supposed to do so.

The question of whether to arm the rebels was not publicly discussed, nor was the question of how to release frozen Libyan assets to help fund them. But the leaders attending the conference made it clear that the military campaign in Libya would not end until Gaddafi had gone.

“Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We’re working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after the talks, indicating that the United States is pinning its hopes on defections from those around Gaddafi.

President Obama said Tuesday that he would not preclude the possibility of arming the rebels. Pressed on the issue in an interview with NBC News, Obama said, “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in.”

“We are still making an assessment about what Gaddafi’s forces are doing,” the president said.

In a series of interviews with the three major television networks, Obama emphasized that his decision to deploy U.S. forces in Libya should not be applied to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. He told NBC that his policy on Libya should not be construed as an “Obama doctrine” that can be applied in a “cookie-cutter fashion.”

The strongest challenge to Gaddafi in London came from the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, a nation that has been the most forthright Arab supporter of the Western-led military campaign in Libya. Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, the prime minister, warned “Gaddafi and his people to leave and not cause any more bloodshed.”

“Right now, we don’t see any indication of that,” he said. “But this hope which we offer now might not be on the table after a few days. I am not warning anybody here, but I’m trying to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible.”

Clinton and other leaders reiterated their conviction that the military campaign in Libya has saved lives by reversing the advance of Gaddafi forces toward Benghazi.

“We have prevented a potential massacre, established a no-fly zone, stopped an advancing army, added more partners to this coalition and transferred command of the military effort to NATO,” Clinton said. “That’s not bad for a week of work at a time of great, intense international concern.”

Gaddafi has not been seen or heard from publicly in a week, but with his forces advancing east on the 11th day of airstrikes, no immediate pressure appeared on his government to abandon him.

Bin Jawwad, 90 miles east of Sirte, marked the farthest point of the rebel advance the last time they swept west through government lines a little over three weeks ago. The retreat Tuesday suggested that the rebels will have a difficult time taking and holding territory in Gaddafi’s loyalist heartland.

News footage showed images of panicked rebels leaping into cars and pickup trucks and scrambling to leave Bin Jawwad as approaching Gaddafi forces pounded them with mortar shells and artillery fire. There were no reports of coalition airstrikes as the rebels withdrew.

The rebels retreated 37 miles east to Ras Lanuf, the oil refinery town they had retaken from Gaddafi earlier this month as the momentum in the war seemed to swing in their favor. Yet even there, their hold seemed tenuous. Reports late Tuesday said the town was coming under heavy artillery fire from advancing Gaddafi troops.

There were also reports from the besieged town of Misurata that Libyan forces had launched a fresh onslaught of attacks, pounding civilian areas with mortar and artillery fire. Four brothers were killed, according to a physician at a rebel-controlled hospital. In Tripoli, airstrikes occurred for the first time in daylight, with three loud explosions shaking the capital at 5:30 p.m.

As news of the rebels’ retreat reached Benghazi, the mood was somber. Rebel spokeswoman Iman Bugaighis described the action as a “tactical withdrawal” designed to take rebel forces “out of the range of Col. Gaddafi’s militia and mercenary troops.”

Rebel officials nonetheless said they welcomed the London conference for the increased diplomatic recognition it appeared to afford their self-styled government, the Transitional National Council.

“We don’t have arms,” said Guma El-Gamaty, British co-coordinator for the council, who added that he would welcome offers to provide weapons to the rebels. “But we ask for political support more than we ask for arms.”

Clinton, like Obama, did not discount the possibility of arming the rebels. She said she thought such a step would be legal under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect the lives of Libyan civilians. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the subject had not been raised.

U.S. and European leaders met with leaders of the rebel council and set up a multinational Libyan contact group to coordinate political strategy in the weeks ahead.
Warrick reported from London. Staff writers Tara Bahrampour in Benghazi, Libya, and Perry Bacon Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.

@ The Washington Post