Indian foreign minister to discuss nuclear deal on US visit

(dpa) - A controversial bilateral civilian nuclear deal is likely to dominate talks between Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and US officials on a trip to Washington scheduled to begin Sunday.

The deal, which would allow the US to export fissile materials and technology for civilian reactors to India ending a three-decade ban, is being opposed by India's ruling alliance's left partners who provide crucial support to the minority United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in parliament.

The Indian government has reached a near-final draft agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on an India- specific safeguards agreement - a pre-requisite for the India-US deal to become operational.

The 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that controls international trade in fissile materials would also have to amend its rules that do not allow trade with countries like India that are non- signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It was earlier expected that Mukherjee would reach Washington with the IAEA agreement in late March and, if the lobbying efforts with the NSG were successful, the US Congress would then approve the deal before George W Bush leaves office in January, allowing the two sides to sign the agreement and make it operational.

The deal was once projected as a highlight of Bush's foreign policy, but it now looks like it will have to wait until a new order is in place both in the US and India, where general elections are due in 2009.

The left parties have made it clear that if the UPA government wants to push the deal through in its present form then it will have to secure the mandate to be able to do so.

Mukherjee said in parliament earlier this week that the UPA government could not change the deal at this stage.

"We are at a stage where neither can we mend it nor end it," he said.

In an interview with an Indian television channel on Friday he said that while the safeguards agreement with the IAEA had been finalized, it could be initialled only after the government's left allies approved it.

The UPA has shared the agreement with Left leaders, but the next meeting of the Left-UPA coordination committee is scheduled to be held in April after Mukherjee returns from Washington.

The two-day trip to the United States will be Mukherjee's first as foreign minister.

"An Indian foreign minister has not visited the United States since 2005. This is an important visit highlighting growing engagement with the US," an Indian diplomatic official said.

While acknowledging that the nuclear deal would be an important item on the agenda for talks, the official said Mukherjee's meetings with US officials would not be restricted to this issue.

Mukherjee is scheduled to hold talks with US Sectary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday to discuss various aspects of broadening bilateral relations, the official said.

The Indian minister is also scheduled to meet other top US officials including members of the National Security Council.

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