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Clock is ticking for U.S.-India nuclear pact

September 07, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

ALGIERS — A landmark deal to improve nuclear cooperation between the United States and India moved forward Saturday with the approval of an international regulatory group, but U.S. officials who have promoted the accord acknowledged that they may run out of time to push it through a balky Congress before President Bush leaves office.

The agreement, which the administration hopes would create a strategic alliance with New Delhi, won the blessing at a meeting in Vienna of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization of 45 countries that cooperate to limit the spread of nuclear technologies.

But the deal must be approved by Congress, and it is to adjourn for the year Sept. 26. Some influential lawmakers, including Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have reservations about it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told reporters Saturday in Algeria, "We understand that time is very short." She said that if the agreement is not completed by Congress this month, "in any case, we will have left a very good package for the next administration."

The deal would give international approval for the first time for the United States and other countries to sell nuclear goods and services to India, which developed atomic weapons but never joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is the cornerstone of international efforts to contain the spread of such weapons.

The Bush administration and other advocates say the deal would help the cause of nonproliferation by finally putting India in the regulatory system created by the treaty.

But critics on the right and the left say it would weaken nonproliferation efforts by demonstrating that a country that never joined the treaty can nonetheless win international support for building its civilian nuclear infrastructure.

Bush administration officials have long considered the nuclear deal one of the most important elements of its foreign policy legacy. They believe that it could establish a long-term alliance with India, one of the world's rising economic powers, which has been wary of close ties to the United States since the Cold War.

"We really care about this," a senior administration official said Saturday.

Rice has worked hard to get the blessing of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The organization acts only by consensus, and several small countries, such as Austria and Ireland, have had qualms, as has China.

The group has debated the issue fiercely over the last few days. Rice aides said she had made dozens of calls to world leaders to argue for the deal, even as she visited Portugal, Libya and Tunisia on a diplomatic tour.

Rice said she intended to start calling key Democratic committee chairmen, and the Democratic leadership, when she returns Monday.

The next administration could approve the deal.

Although Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has expressed mixed feelings about it, his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, has been a strong supporter. Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, is also a supporter.

After meeting Friday in Tripoli with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, Rice conferred with Tunisian leaders Saturday morning and Algerian officials in the afternoon. She has discussed regional issues, human rights and terrorism.

During each of the North African stops, she asked officials to consider accepting detainees from their countries who are in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. officials are trying to return all 270 detainees in Cuba to their home countries, but want assurances from those governments that they will neither mistreat them nor just release them.

"Our goal is, with the right security provision and the right human rights provisions, to return as many people to their homes as possible," she said. She acknowledged that the administration may not finish the job before its time runs out in January.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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