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The subject is fit for the history books: the nuclear future of the world. But the debate is out of Roberts' Rules of Order.

As a global conference opened Monday in the glittering U.N. General Assembly hall to renew the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the focus fell on a basement meeting room instead, where diplomats wrangled behind closed doors over procedures for voting on that renewal when the monthlong conference wraps up.The technical argument downstairs reflected a bigger dispute over whether to extend the 25-year-old treaty indefinitely and unconditionally, as favored by the U.S.-led nuclear powers, or only for limited periods and with strings attached, as some Third Worlders want.

The procedural debate - the United States wants an open roll-call vote, others a secret ballot - went unresolved to the last minute and was dropped into the lap of the newly installed conference president, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka.

"He may eventually have to put the question to an open vote of the conference itself," said a knowledgeable U.N. source.

The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty represented a grand bargain between nuclear powers and non-weapons states.

Under its provisions, the 178 signatory governments are committed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond five nations that acknowledge having them - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. In exchange, the five are pledged to work toward eliminating all nuclear arms.

The treaty also guaranteed nations the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology under international oversight.

The United States estimates it already has a rough majority of votes for indefinite, unconditional extension.

But many in the Third World, complaining the nuclear powers are moving too slowly toward total disarmament, want to renew the treaty for only 5, 10 or 25 years, and to tie continuing extensions to concrete progress toward disarmament.

The German foreign minister, echoing the views of the nuclear powers and their allies in a speech to the conference Tuesday, denounced the idea of making extension conditional.

"That would only play into the hands of those who seek a pretext to justify their own nuclear ambitions," said Klaus Kinkel.