WASHINGTON, Feb 28: The joint US and Indian efforts to save their nuclear deal continues to dominate discussions in the US capital as President George W. Bush left home on Tuesday for a landmark visit to South Asia which many say is as important as President Nixon’s historic visit to China in the 1970s.

At briefings and discussions, Pakistan is also mentioned as a key US ally where President Bush is expected to sign a bilateral investment treaty. Officials at the White House and the State Department point out that in his interview to Pakistani journalists last week President Bush underscored the need to resolve the Kashmir dispute to the satisfaction of all three parties involved, India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris.

The Kashmir dispute was also mentioned at a Monday afternoon briefing at the White House where spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the traditional US position that India and Pakistan should try to settle this issue through bilteral talks.

“The dialogue ought to be occuring between India and Pakistan. There has been some improvement in that dialouge, and we want a solution that represents the interests of all sides,” he said.

“Pakistan enjoys a key role in America’s policies towards South and Central Asian regions,” said Ambassador Jehangir Karamat while briefing Pakistani journalists before leaving for home for the visit. “So we can say that strategically Pakistan is as important as India, if not more.”

But Mr Bush’s engagements in Pakistan are not debated as vigorously as his engagements in India. A senior US official, when asked to explain why Mr Bush’s visit to Pakistan did not generate as much interest as his trip to India, said it was because of the expected nuclear deal which has become a controversial issue in Washington.

At the White House Mr McClellan told reporters at that the US and India are still trying to sort out their differences over the nuclear deal. But he acknowledged that they were dealing with complex issues that were not easy to resolve.

“Some progress has been made in those negotiations. Whether or not it gets done before the trip or during the trip, we will have to see,” he said.

The deal, signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House on July 18, offers US civilian nuclear cooperation to India and could also lead to India’s de facto recognition as a nuclear power. But it also requires India to separate its civilian facilities from military installations and place them under the IAEA proliferation control regime. India is reluctant to do so because it feels that opening its facilities for inspection, particularly its fast breeder reactors, could jeopardise its strategic defence programme.

“It’s an important agreement. But these are complex issues that we are dealing with here, and they have been ongoing for some time, these negotiations. And we’ll see where they lead,” said Mr McClellan.

Mr McClellan also tried to delink the success or failure of the Bush visit with the conclusion of the nuclear deal. “Our relationship with India is much broader than the civilian nuclear program that we are talking about,” he said.

“And we have worked to strengthen that relationship. India is a strategic partner, and we work together on a number of issues across the board, whether it’s the war on terrorism or expanding economic opportunity and prosperity, or other issues”, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, think-tank experts in Washington point out that a formula outlined by Prime Minister Singh to save the deal falls short of Mr Bush’s stated criteria for concluding it.

“The Indians are holding fast to a position that is inconsistent with stated US objectives” for an agreement that is credible, transparent and defensible, Robert Einhorn, a US former non-proliferation official said.

Washington’s aim is to prevent US and other foreign technology from being used in India’s nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Singh told parliament his government’s proposal would put nuclear reactors that generate about 65pc of atomic power under international scrutiny.

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