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Key U.S. Senate committes backs India nuclear deal

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) A key US Senate committee gave initial approval today to a sweeping civilian nuclear cooperation deal with India, hailing it as the cornerstone of ties with an important new ally.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed bipartisan legislation endorsing the deal and setting rules for final approval on a 16 to 2 vote, with little wrangling over non-proliferation concerns that had dogged earlier debate over the agreement.

The agreement with India, often a US adversary during the Cold War, ''is the most important strategic diplomatic initiative undertaken by President (George W.) Bush,'' said the legislation's prime sponsor, Republican Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana.

A separate bill was passed on Tuesday by the House of Representatives International Relations Committee. Each chamber must now approve its own bill, then reconcile the competing versions and take a final vote, which proponents anticipate in July.

But before Congress can give final approval, US-India negotiations on the technical details of the nuclear cooperation agreement must be completed, as must India's negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency on a system of inspections for New Delhi's civilian nuclear facilities.

In addition, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group must also approve the deal. Pakistan, the United States' key frontline ally in its war on terrorism, is upset by the nuclear deal and is demanding similar treatment, but Washington has repeatedly rejected the request.

The deal, granting nuclear-armed India access to US nuclear fuel and reactors for the first time in 30 years, was agreed in principle by Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last July 18.

Many non-proliferation experts are concerned the deal would allow India to increase nuclear weapons production and otherwise undermine international non-proliferation standards.

REUTERS PK VV2228

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