Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India when he arrived in New Delhi on Monday.

The trip will cement a once secretive relationship that has become a military and strategic alliance in just a few years.

Indian forces sealed off key areas in New Delhi days before Sharon's arrival in a security operation not seen since US President Bill Clinton visited in March 2000.

Sharon, heading a 150 member delegation including top Israeli arms dealers, will hold talks with senior Indian leaders and business groups.

Fury

But the visit has sparked fury among India's 130 million strong Muslim community.

They say the relationship could be viewed as an "anti-Islamic" alliance.

India's chief Islamic cleric, Sayid Ahmad Bukhari, said he would lead a march on Tuesday from New Delhi's largest mosque to the Israeli embassy to show the "great resentment and anger" against the visit of Sharon.

He called the Israeli premier "the man behind all the savage and brutal activities of Israel against Palestinian Muslims".

Anti-Muslim alliance

India's far-left has also vowed protests during Sharon's pilgrimage on Tuesday to the tomb of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, an apostle of non-violence.

And Pakistan, which does not recognize Israel, expressed concern Sharon's visit would bolster its neighbour's weapons arsenal.

Ariel Sharon is the first Israeli
premier to visit India 

"I think, if this axis is directed against Muslims all over the world, and if it is directed against Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims, we would be most concerned and it would be a very negative development," foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan said.

India treated Israel as a pariah until 1992 when it established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Trade relations

But ties have warmed since Vajpayee's Hindu nationalists took office in 1998 and moved India closer to the United States.

The cooperation has been particularly striking in defence, with Israel selling India more arms than any country except Russia.

Bilateral trade between Israel and India, two-thirds of it in diamonds, reached $1.27 billion in 2002.

"Our relations will be further strengthened," Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said on Monday.

But he said New Delhi, which just two weeks earlier hosted Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, remained a supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Accords

"We have taken a principled stand," Vajpayee added.

Indian officials said they would not use Sharon's visit to finalize a $1 billion deal for Israel's premier Phalcon radar system.

Instead, the two sides will sign low-key accords on issues ranging from combatting drug smuggling to protecting the environment.

Sharon is, however, expected to issue a joint declaration of principles - probably about international "terrorism" - after his meeting on Tuesday with Vajpayee.