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Uncertainty over Indo-US deal

The opposition to the deal is being spearheaded by Democrats who were generally seen to be friendly to India.

india Updated: May 12, 2006 11:26 IST

Growing differences between the Bush administration and the Congress appear to have created an uncertainty over the fate of the landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

Surprisingly, the opposition to the deal is being spearheaded by Democrats who were generally seen to be friendly to India.

At a hearing of the House International Relations Committee on Thursday, the fifth in a series, the views of the Democrats have become clearer.

Congressional sources say that some Democrats, who have raised objections to the deal, favour stronger relations between India and the United States, but are reluctant to hand President George Bush a foreign policy coup so close to the November elections.

The landmark civilian nuclear agreement concluded during Bush's visit to India in March, would allow New Delhi to buy sensitive nuclear technology for the first time in three decades and India, in turn, would open up its civilian nuclear reactors to IAEA safeguards.

For the deal to become effective, it must be approved by the Congress and Bush administration has already introduced a legislation to amend the 1954 US Atomic Energy Act for an India-specific waiver, but a sceptical Congress has been holding hearings to elicit the views of experts before putting their seal of approval on the legislation.

What appeared to be smooth sailing only a few weeks ago now appears to have been stopped in its tracks as leading Democrats once again underscored their oft-repeated concerns about the deal. They included Tom Lantos and Howard L Berman, Adam Schiff, Diane Watson all of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Some Republicans on the Committee including Christopher Smith of New Jersey, Illeana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida had also spoken against the deal.

Without actually mentioning the word, the Democrats are putting conditions, demanding that Congress should withhold its green signal until India finalises its agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the safeguards arrangement, stops fissile material production and assures that it will not carry out any further nuclear testing.

Besides, they said the deal might encourage would-be nuclear weapons states, like Iran and North Korea and possibly spur a nuclear arms race in South Asia.

In a surprise move, Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, said he would introduce legislation that would delay Congressional action pending conclusion of those India-US negotiations on the agreement -- and until India agreed on a system of inspections of its civil nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.