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Rice in India but doesn't sign nuclear deal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Saturday a landmark nuclear trade with India had been completed but she was unable to sign the pact during a visit to New Delhi because of bureaucratic delays back home.

India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee (L) gestures to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before their meeting in New Delhi October 4, 2008. Rice arrived in India on Saturday after Congress ratified a historic nuclear pact, but was unlikely to sign the deal during her visit because of a bureaucratic "glitch". REUTERS/B Mathur

The deal allowing India access to U.S. nuclear fuel, reactors and technology was effectively sealed by the U.S. Congress when the Senate passed it on Wednesday.

It overturned a three-decade ban on nuclear trade with India imposed after it first tested nuclear weapons in 1974. U.S. officials had hoped Rice could sign the accord during her whirlwind one-day trip to India celebrating the pact, which was a top foreign policy priority of President Bush’s second term.

But Rice, speaking after talks with her Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee, suggested administrative procedures on Capitol Hill had delayed the enabling legislation from getting to Bush for him to sign.

She assured reporters it would be signed “soon” and that there were no last-minute substantive differences blocking completion of what admittedly had been, at times, a very “tough” process of negotiations.

“The 123 Agreement is done,” Rice declared at a joint press conference with Mukherjee, using the name taken from the numbered paragraph of U.S. law that covers civilian nuclear accords. “It is a matter of signing that agreement.

“So I don’t want anyone to think we have open issues. We don’t have open issues,” she said.

“I think you know this has been a busy time for our legislative branch over the last couple of days,” she added, referring to Capitol Hill’s passage of a $700 billion bank bailout plan to address a major financial crisis.

Supporters talk of how the nuclear pact brings two of the world’s largest democracies closer, while opening up the Indian nuclear energy market worth billions of dollars.

But critics say the accord does grave damage to global efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, by letting India import nuclear fuel and technology even though it has tested nuclear weapons and has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The signing snag was the latest in a series of twists and turns that began three years ago when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bush agreed in principle to the deal.

The Bush administration then pushed hard to get needed approvals for the controversial pact from the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.S. Congress.

The deal endured a rocky road in India as well. The communists withdrew their support from the Singh government in July over the pact, condemned it as India’s “surrender” to Washington.

Mukherjee, seated by Rice at the press conference Saturday, said he hoped the nuclear deal would be signed shortly.

But he was noncommittal when asked what he thought of a promise Rice had made to U.S. lawmakers to push for the Nuclear Suppliers Group to prohibit the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology, that can be used to make weapons, to states that haven’t signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- like India.

“In respect of the facilities for reprocessing, as and when we will enter into bilateral arrangements, these issues will be addressed,” Mukherjee said.

Rice said the experience of working on the deal had left ties with New Delhi “one of the very strongest” relationships that the Bush administration would leave for its successor.

She said she and Mukherjee discussed Afghanistan and their “joint desire to see Afghanistan peaceful and prosperous.”

India and Afghanistan share close ties and New Delhi is involved in reconstruction projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars there, angering the Taliban who attack Indian workers.

During her visit Rice also was meeting Singh as well as Lal Krishna Advani, leader of main Hindu--nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party which opposed the nuclear deal.

Editing by Giles Elgood