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Bush Prepares for India Trip

President Bush heads to India this week with a full agenda for his talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The centerpiece of this visit was supposed to be the signing of a highly controversial nuclear cooperation agreement. But as the trip approached, it appeared doubtful the deal would be ready on time.

"We're making progress, but we are not there yet," said White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. "It's important to have a good agreement that works for the Indians, works for the United States, will be acceptable to our congress and the nuclear suppliers group. And that's our objective."

Under terms of an agreement in principle reached last July, the United States would provide India with civilian nuclear technology and India would put its energy program under international safeguards.

In order to do so, India must devise a way to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, a highly complex task.

There are also political considerations at stake, as legislatures in both countries must approve the final agreement.

Robert Blackwell, who served as President Bush's ambassador to India during his first term in office, predicts a highly impassioned debate. He says that always happens at times of major departures in U.S. foreign policy.

"We now forget the debate over the opening to China," said Mr. Blackwell. "There was another big debate about détente and dealing with the Soviets. In my opinion, the transformation of the U.S.-India relationship and this visit and the civilian nuclear agreement that is being discussed is in that same galaxy."

Blackwell says President Bush and Prime Minister Singh will still have plenty to talk about if the agreement is not ready by the visit. But he says the moment of opportunity is now.

"The best time to make these breakthroughs is when the two political leaderships are most engaged and that is now in the run-up to the president's visit," he added.

Without an agreement, the visit is likely to center on economic and regional matters, Iran, promoting democracy, and military-to-military ties. Rick Inderfurth was the Clinton administration's top diplomat for South Asia. He says the trip should not be judged a success or failure on the basis of the nuclear deal alone.

"I believe this trip has far more to it than simply the civilian nuclear agreement," said Mr. Inderfurth. "And if it takes more time to finalize it in a way that will answer the questions the U.S. congress has and the Indian parliament has, then that time should be taken."

Inderfurth says what is striking about this trip is the fact that after years of infrequent visits to South Asia, American presidents are making sure they travel to the subcontinent.

"We're seeing two successive presidents traveling to India, President Clinton in 2000, and now President Bush in 2006," he added. "I think this is an important statement that a trip to India is no longer just a desired, but a required part of an American president's itinerary during his term in office."

In a speech previewing his trip, President Bush said relations with India have never been better. He said the two countries have an ambitious agenda - from combating terrorism, to trade, to energy.

"My trip will remind everybody about the strengthening of an important strategic partnership," said Mr. Bush. "We'll work together in practical ways to promote a hopeful future for citizens in both our countries."

In addition to his meetings with Prime Minister Singh, President Bush will confer with political, religious, and political party leaders. He will also take part in an event designed to showcase agricultural ties between India and the United States, and meet with a group of young Indian entrepreneurs.