Bush Set to Back Out Of Nuclear Agreement

ALGIERS, Algeria -- Now is not the right time for the United States to move forward on a once-celebrated deal for civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday.

Her comment increased speculation that U.S. President George W. Bush is planning to punish Moscow for invading Georgia by canceling the agreement. Such a move is being planned, according to senior Bush administration officials, but is not yet final.

"The time isn't right for the Russia agreement," Rice told reporters while flying from Tunisia to Algeria during a visit to North Africa. "We'll be making an announcement about that later."

A U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Friday that he did not know the exact timing of the announcement but that "It's probably going to happen next week."

"We made very clear that Russia's behavior has to be condemned, and there have to be consequences that flow from what it's done in Georgia," the State Department official said. "This will be an example of that."

U.S.-Russian relations have cooled considerably since last month's military standoff between Russia and Georgia and Moscow's subsequent recognition of independence for Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The nuclear cooperation agreement was signed by the United States and Russia in May and sent by Bush to Congress, which can still disapprove of the pact. Bush or his successor, who takes office in January, could later decide to resubmit the deal to Congress.

The agreement would give the United States access to modern Russian nuclear technology and clear the way for Russia to establish itself as a lucrative center for the import and storage of spent nuclear fuel from American-supplied reactors around the world.

Such a deal was seen as crucial to boosting relations with Russia and to fulfilling Bush's vision of increasing civilian nuclear energy use worldwide as a way to combat rising energy demands and climate change.

Withdrawing the agreement from Congress would likely have little effect. The deal probably would not have been approved before Bush's term ends and key U.S. lawmakers have said the accord is probably dead anyway in the wake of the war over South Ossetia.

But pulling it would send a message to Russia that its actions in Georgia are not acceptable and will not go unanswered.

The nuclear pact would have gone into force if Congress did not pass a joint resolution of disapproval or adjourned for the year before lawmakers had 90 legislative days to review it.

Some members of Congress were already troubled by the nuclear pact even before Russia and Georgia went to war last month. They said they did not trust Russia enough to expand nuclear cooperation because it supplied fuel to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. Washington believes Iran harbors ambitions to build a nuclear bomb.

(AP, Reuters)