updated 9/6/2008 12:01:35 PM ET 2008-09-06T16:01:35

Nations that supply nuclear material and technology overcame fierce obstacles Saturday and approved a landmark U.S. plan to engage in atomic trade with India — a deal that reverses more than three decades of American policy.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs the legal world trade in nuclear components and know-how, signed off on the deal after three days of contentious talks and some concessions to countries fearful it could set a dangerous precedent.

"Today we have reached a landmark decision to allow for civilian nuclear trade with India," John Rood, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control issues, told reporters.

"This is a historical moment for the NSG, for India and for India's relations with the rest of the world," he said.

India hailed the agreement as "a forward-looking and momentous decision."

"It marks the end of India's decades-long isolation from the nuclear mainstream," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. "The opening of full civil nuclear cooperation between India and the international community will be good for India and for the world."

But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, denounced Saturday's move as a "profound setback to the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament system that will produce dangerous ripple effects for years to come."

"By establishing a 'good guys' and 'bad guys' set of rules, the decision will make it far harder to curb the South Asian nuclear and missile arms race," Kimball said. He said the deal would "undermine efforts to contain Iran's and North Korea's nuclear program, and it will make it nearly impossible to win support for much needed measures to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty."

Austria lifts objections
Austria, one of the holdouts along with Ireland and New Zealand, said it lifted its objections after India pledged Friday not to touch off a new nuclear arms race or share sensitive nuclear technology with other countries.

In a statement, the Austrian government called that pledge "decisive," and Rood said it "played a major role" in removing obstacles to an agreement.

India has tested atomic weapons and refused to sign international nonproliferation treaties.

The U.S. needed approval from the nuclear group, which governs the legal trade in nuclear components and technology, and from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which signed off on the deal last month.

The 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group was founded as a direct result of India's 1974 atomic test blasts. India tested nuclear weapons most recently in 1998, and opponents have expressed concerns that bending the rules to allow nuclear trade with New Delhi undermines the global effort to discourage the production of weapons of mass destruction.

"We're very pleased that we were able to reach a compromise that everyone could live with," said the chief British envoy, Simon Smith.

Waiting on final OK
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also welcomed the deal, saying it would "make a significant contribution to energy and climate security" in India and worldwide.

But the plan still needs backing from U.S. Congress, and the Bush administration must now race to get approval before lawmakers recess for the rest of the year to devote time to their re-election campaigns.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters on a flight across North Africa, called the deal "landmark" and said final congressional approval would be "a huge step for the U.S.-India relationship."

Before the nuclear group approved the deal, U.S. officials had contended that selling peaceful nuclear technology to India would bring the country's atomic program under closer scrutiny and boost — not undermine — international nonproliferation efforts.

Miliband agreed, saying: "Today's result represents a gain for the nonproliferation regime by bringing India further into the broader nonproliferation framework."

Rood said it also would help meet India's growing energy needs while helping the developing country — a major polluter — cut back on harmful emissions that experts warn are contributing to global warming.

"This is a historic achievement that strengthens global nonproliferation principals while assisting India to meet its energy requirements in an environmentally friendly manner," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.

Officials said Saturday's breakthrough came after U.S. President George W. Bush personally intervened to lobby allies at the nuclear group to approve the trade waiver. They said Bush and Singh spoke by telephone Saturday and congratulated each other.

"The U.S. government engaged in an intense diplomatic effort," Rood said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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