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Nuclear, terrorism issues to dominate Bush's first South Asia trip
US President George W. Bush leaves on a maiden visit to South Asia this week determined to clinch a landmark nuclear deal with India and prod Pakistan to move more rapidly against Al-Qaeda leaders believed to be hiding in the country.
"In this vital region, the stakes are high and the opportunities are unprecedented," Bush said ahead of Tuesday's departure to what is home to the world's most bitter nuclear rivals, the most dreaded terrorists, the largest democracy and a rapidly growing region and vast market.
In India, Bush wants to seal an elusive agreement for the United States to share civilian nuclear technology as part of a strategic partnership initiative launched with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last summer.
In an editorial Sunday, the Washington Post wrote that the agreement is an important deterrent against further weaponization of South Asia.
"A good nuclear deal with India could reduce the likelihood that Pakistan and others will scramble to build extra bombs," the daily wrote, adding that "the details of the deal matter -- to America's security and India's."
But it may be an irony that the United States, which saw India as an ally of the Soviet Union and imposed many sanctions on New Delhi after its defiant 1974 nuclear tests, now wants to embrace the Asian giant.
"The nuclear agreement attempts to cut through this past history, and offer to India a tailor-made 'regime' outside of the NPT," said Stephen Cohen, a South Asian expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Although still outside the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India has become vital to the United States. It is the world's largest democracy, set to surpass China as the most populous nation and fastest growing economy, and a vibrant market.
The atomic pact will acknowledge India's military nuclear status and allow the energy-starved nation to accept help for its civilian nuclear program.
Key to the agreement is a requirement for New Delhi to separate its civil and military programs to ensure that India's military facilities do not benefit from nuclear technology transfers.
But India is reluctant to be fully transparent because it is worried Bush may not be able to influence the powerful US Congress to give mandatory approval to the plan, said former US Defense Secretary William Cohen.
"This Gordian knot must have to be cut, cut very soon because if the civilian nuclear agreement unravels, it is going to have a major impact on the relationship," Cohen said, suggesting that both parties make major compromises.
While the nuclear deal seems to be the focus of Bush's three-day visit to India, his tightly-guarded day-long trip to Pakistan is expected to be dominated by talks on the "war on terror."
The US leader is expected to nudge Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in Bush's anti-terror campaign, to commit more resources to capturing Al-Qaeda kingpin Osama bin laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, reportedly hiding in Pakistan's northwest frontier province on Afghanistan's border.
Zawahiri reportedly escaped missile strikes by US drones in a tribal village in Pakistan in January.
At a time when Musharraf is in political difficulty at home partly because of his close identification with American policy, Bush is expected to use quiet diplomacy to push the anti-terror agenda and for democratic reforms.
He will tell the Pakistani military strongman "perhaps a little more quietly, but 'I wish you could do more on the borders,'" said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"He might very well bring up in the same vein: 'And we'd like to see you crack down a little harder on your jihadists, help out Afghanistan in that regard by going after the Taliban,'" Weinbaum said.
Pakistan has of late been accused by Kabul of harbouring radical Taliban leaders directing a four-year-old insurgency in Afghanistan.
Seven out of eight Americans believe that it is important to capture or kill bin Laden, while 75 percent believe he is planning a significant attack on the United States, according to recent polls by the USA Today newspaper.
"These numbers suggest that bringing bin Laden to justice would be a key psychological victory in the war on terrorism," Peter Bergen, a fellow of the think tank New America Foundation, wrote in the Washington Post.
Bush said he would encourage Musharraf and Singh to resolve the Kashmir dispute -- the cause of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan.
The US leader's visit to the region comes at a sensitive time amid Muslim rage over the Danish publication of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Hindu-majority India has about 150 million Muslims while Pakistan is home to 162 million Muslims.
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Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement
Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty
Osama bin Laden
War On Terror
"A good nuclear deal with India could reduce the likelihood that Pakistan and others will scramble to build extra bombs."
-- Editorial in the Washington Post
India is set to surpass China as the most populous nation and fastest growing economy
India is the world largest democracy
India is home to about 150 million Muslims
Pakistan is home to about 162 million Muslims
India is vital to the United States.
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