Powell Tiptoes Indo-Pak Divide ; Colin Powell Arrived in New Delhi Yesterday, and Hopes to Help India and Pakistan Start Talking

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Step by step, America is taking a more active role in what has famously been a no-man's land of diplomacy: India-Pakistan animosity.

With the Indian Army massed on high alert along the Pakistan border, US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in New Delhi yesterday hoping to start a bilateral dialogue.

Tensions are lower here after the roundup of 2,000 jihadis in Pakistan by Gen. Pervez Musharraf earlier this week; officials in Kashmir say violence in the mountain valley is lessening.

But neither side is talking, so Secretary Powell is presenting the different viewpoints of the neighbors to each other. Careful not to use the word "mediate" - a word intolerable to India - Powell is "carrying some ideas" to New Delhi in an effort to start a bilateral dialogue on peace.

But weeks of phone calls and shuttle visits by Washington raise a larger question: Will the Indo-Pakistan standoff become a permanent nuclear flashpoint, a smaller-sized "Middle East" problem, that the US will feel a responsibility to broker in perpetuity?

"The US had always taken sort of a distant parental role toward us. You saw that in '99. But now they are in the trenches," says a Delhi official.

In the 48 hours after five gunmen stormed India's Parliament last month, outrage in Delhi was widespread here - a collective spasm of anger and shock.

Now US officials are worried about the possibility of bolder terrorist attacks in India - possibly by Pakistani extremists who want to upset a peace process, or exact revenge against General Musharraf's crackdown on Islamic radicals in Pakistan.

"All it takes is a major explosion, another bomb in Delhi, and you could see us again on the brink," says one Western official. "What worries me, after watching the speed of the reaction after Dec. 13 [the Parliament attack] is that India might not hesitate, as it did this time."

The nuclear threat - and the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism in South and Central Asia - is forcing Washington to play a more active role.

"This government knows there can't be a war in South Asia," says Amitabh Mattoo, a member of India's National Security Advisory Council, downplaying recent fears. "India knows the US has new interests. But if there is the slightest element of doubt the US is not acting fairly, Delhi won't cooperate."

Diplomatically, South Asia is a cactus field of prickly sentiments. Pakistan may be eager for the US to enter the fray, hoping it will raise the issue of Kashmir. …