Bush Travels to India, Pakistan

President Bush is heading to South Asia this week for his first trip to India and Pakistan, long-time nuclear rivals that have been taking steps to ease cross-border tensions.

It will be a brief trip, only a few days, but it will be loaded with symbolism.

President Bush says it will be an opportunity to mark a transformation in America's relationship with the two countries. It is a transformation that began over a decade ago.

"The United States has not always enjoyed close relations with Pakistan and India," he said. "In the past, the Cold War and regional tensions kept us apart. But, today our interests and values are bringing us closer together."

In India, the president hopes to highlight that transformation of relations by signing a nuclear cooperation deal, if negotiators are able to flesh out an agreement in principle in time for the visit.

Under terms of the agreement, India would be able to obtain help for its civilian energy program, if it agrees to place that program under international safeguards.

Former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwell says it is a radical idea, given that the Indian government has long conducted its nuclear activities in secret, and originally developed nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy program.

"It will be debated in our Congress, and it will be debated in their parliament," said Mr. Blackwell. "And it should be, because it is really quite fundamental. And it is not surprising that this step, which I would call a radical step -- it is not surprising that it has incited such debate in both countries."

It was hoped the nuclear deal would be the centerpiece of the president's visit to India. White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says he remains hopeful a final deal can be reached in time.

"We would like to get it before the trip," he said. "If we can, that is great. If we cannot, we will continue to negotiate it after the trip."

Without a deal, the stay in India is likely to be dominated by talk of trade and investment, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and cooperation in the war on terror. Those same topics will be at the fore when the president travels on to Pakistan.

The two nuclear armed countries have been traditional rivals, but relations have improved significantly recently. President Bush is sure to raise that point in Islamabad, where he will highlight cooperation in numerous areas, and call for enhanced efforts to resolve the dispute over divided Kashmir.

"For too long, Kashmir has been a source of violence and mistrust between these two countries," said Mr. Bush. "But I believe that India and Pakistan now have an historic opportunity to work toward lasting peace."

The visit to Islamabad also comes at a time of tensions in the Muslim world, sparked by political cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. There have been violent protests in many countries, including Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities have banned demonstrations in several major cities, and rounded up dozens of activists and Islamic religious leaders. More rallies are scheduled, including a nationwide strike while the president is in the region.

President Bush says it never crossed his mind to cancel the trip. Marvin Weinbaum is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He says canceling would send a bad signal about U.S. confidence in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is considered a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, particularly in the troubled border region with Afghanistan.

"Not to go would clearly be a vote of no confidence in the Musharraf-led government," said Mr. Weinbaum. "After all, we are asking Pakistan to secure the border. Are we prepared to say, 'but you can not secure parts of Islamabad'?"

Security will be tight everywhere Mr. Bush goes, in sharp contrast to the 1959 South Asia tour by Dwight Eisenhower, the first U.S. president to visit the region.

India's ambassador to the United States, Ronan Sen, remembers how President Eisenhower traveled the country in an open motorcade with hundreds-of-thousands of people in the streets. He says President Bush will not be so fortunate.

"I am afraid those days are gone. He will not in that sense feel the vibrancy of our democracy," said Mr. Sen.

The president's itinerary will be full of formal events and little, if any, time for sightseeing. He is expected to visit one of India's technology centers, but will not tour the Taj Mahal, or any of the country's other major attractions.

In Pakistan, his stay is likely to be all business, except for one item on his schedule. Aides say Mr. Bush, the former owner of a baseball team, will take a little time out to watch some cricket.