Bush confident on India

Congress must still approve nuclear accord crafted during Asia trip

March 05, 2006|By MARK SILVA | MARK SILVA,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Bush returns from a four-day tour of Asia confident of presiding over a "transformation" in U.S. relations with India, as well as a secure alliance with neighboring nations committed to combating terrorism in a volatile region.

While Bush has scored a diplomatic success with his agreement to support India's nuclear power program in exchange for an Indian commitment to place its civilian reactors under international supervision, the president still faces a political challenge at home in persuading Congress to approve the deal.

As Bush returns from two visits to nations battling terrorists and local insurgencies - Afghanistan on Wednesday and Pakistan yesterday - the extraordinary security measures taken during these stops demonstrate how dangerous this region remains.

"There's a lot of work to be done in defeating al-Qaida," Bush said yesterday at a news conference standing alongside Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. "While we do have a lot of work to be done, it's important that we stay on the hunt" for terrorists, "some of whom are lodged here in Pakistan."

In fact, Pakistan's army was forced to retaliate with helicopter gunships and artillery after pro-Taliban tribesmen clashed with security forces yesterday near the Afghan border. At least 49 people were killed in the fighting, a spokesman said.

Anger had been stirring among the tribesmen since a military strike on a suspected al-Qaida camp last week in the nearby village of Saidgi.

Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, the army spokesman, said 25 militants were killed in Miran Shah and 21 in Mir Ali, but he added that the total could be higher. Three government troops also died and about 10 were wounded, he said.

With the Pakistani capital in a virtual lockdown yesterday, Bush counted on his meeting with Musharraf to demonstrate a shared commitment to hunting down terrorists.

This was the first time that a U.S. president had visited India and Pakistan since the Sept. 11 attacks, and Bush confronted questions in Afghanistan about why, after four years, the mastermind of those attacks, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, remains at large. Bush maintains that alliances with leaders such as Musharraf eventually will bring the capture of bin Laden.

Bush and Musharraf met for talks at Aiwan-e-Sadr, the presidential residence. Bush also took in a cricket match at the U.S. Embassy and a state dinner before he was to return to Washington early today.

But it was Bush's meeting with the Indian prime minister Thursday, capping eight months of negotiations, that cemented the most significant outcome of his trip.

India, which never signed the international nuclear nonproliferation treaty, has agreed to place most of its civilian reactors under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency and to permanently place future civilian reactors under the U.N. agency's supervision. The agreement enables India to keep two reactors that supply its nuclear weapons within its closed military program and to build new weapons-supporting reactors.

Before the U.S. can share nuclear technology with India, the Bush administration must persuade Congress to revise American law, which prohibits such cooperation with nations outside the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that have tested weapons - as India has, as recently as 1998.

Critics contend that the Bush administration is essentially rewarding India's bad behavior with nuclear weaponry and sending the wrong signal to nations such as Iran and North Korea, which are intent on flouting international regulations by developing nuclear arms.

"India appears to have fully achieved all its negotiating objectives: importing uranium and nuclear technology, gaining recognition as a nuclear weapon state and preserving full freedom to expand its nuclear weapons capability as it sees fit," said Robert Einhorn, senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and an expert in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The deal also has critics in Congress, but some suggest that Bush will be able to win approval once details are presented to congressional leaders inclined to support India. The U.S. nuclear industry, stymied by a lack of construction of new reactors in the United States since the 1970s, also is lobbying Congress with an eye on a huge new market.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee acknowledged concerns about the deal among lawmakers but said he believes Congress will back the agreement.

"I am encouraged by the fact that this agreement will, for the first time, require a majority of India's nuclear reactors to be placed under international safeguards," Frist said.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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