US House approves nuclear deal with India

The US House of Representatives approved an agreement on Saturday allowing the United States to sell civilian nuclear material and technology to India, bringing the landmark accord one step closer to President George W Bush's signature, dpa reported.

The House voted 298 to 117 to pass the agreement that still must clear the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Saturday that the upper chamber will not take it up until at least Monday.

Bush has urged Congress to act quickly on the deal that could position US firms to compete for billions of dollars of contracts in India's lucrative energy sector. The Senate could be considering amendments that would send the legislation back to the House for a second approval.

Bush placed the agreement at the top of his foreign policy agenda as he prepares to leave office in January and it has emerged as the centerpiece of increasingly strong diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the deal on Tuesday in a 19-2 vote. It is expected to pass the full chamber.

Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed in 2006 to pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement and the two countries have since been in complicated negotiations to implement it, mainly to ensure that US technology could not be used in India's nuclear weapons programme.

Bush met with Singh Thursday at the White House and assured him that the US administration was working to win prompt passage of the deal before the current congressional session ends in the coming days.

India's refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is designed to prevent the spread of dangerous nuclear material, complicated the negotiations and has been a sticking point in Congress.

Lawmakers opposed to the agreement argued that allowing India to purchase nuclear energy products undermines international efforts to curb proliferation and sends the wrong message to countries like Iran and North Korea.

"Flashing a green light (to India) sends a dangerous signal to all of those countries" defying international rules on nuclear activities, Representative Edward Markey, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a leading opponent, said during debate Friday evening.

The White House has warned that failing to approve the deal will leave US companies out of India's energy sector, as France and Russia have moved to complete similar arrangements with New Delhi.

"It's taken a lot of work on both our parts, a lot of courage on your part," Bush told Singh during a meeting at the White House Thursday. "And so we're working hard to get it passed as quickly as possible."

Earlier this month, an organization of 45 countries known as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) granted a US-backed waiver for India to purchase nuclear material on the international market. The waiver was required under rules banning sales to non-NPT members.

The deal had been hung up earlier this year in Singh's governing coalition. Smaller parties argued that the agreement compromised India's sovereignty because of US demands for the opening to international inspections of India's civilian nuclear reactors - but not military facilities.

That opposition softened in July after Singh prevailed in a parliamentary vote of confidence. India was also required to separate its civilian and military programmes.

The United States had refused to cooperate with India's nuclear energy programme since the country first detonated an atomic bomb in 1974.

"For 34 years, India has suffered from a nuclear apartheid. We have not been able to trade in nuclear materials, nuclear reactors, nuclear raw materials," Singh said at the meeting with Bush.

The US Chamber of Commerce has urged Congress to back the accord, saying it would allow US companies to benefit from the 150 billion dollars India is expected to invest in its energy sector through 2030. The Chamber of Commerce said the deal could create thousands of high-technology jobs in the United States.

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