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Syria proposes Mideast free of WMD

Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Mikhail Wehbe speaks to reporters after a U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday.

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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Syria introduced a resolution Wednesday in the U.N. Security Council that would declare the Middle East a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

"We believe such a draft resolution ... is a very important factor for the peace process," said Syria's U.N. ambassador, Mikhail Wehbe.

The resolution, backed by the 22-nation Arab Group, calls for a region free of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Arab diplomats said the resolution was aimed at Israel, a U.S. ally that has refused to confirm or deny the widespread belief it has nuclear weapons.

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Interactive: Syria at a glance 
- Authoritarian state ruled by the Baath party

- Sunni Muslims are a huge majority, representing about three quarters of the population

- Alawites (a minority Muslim sect) hold key power positions

- President Bashar al-Assad took over when his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000

- Bordered by Lebanon and Israel to the west; Jordan to the south; Iraq to the east; Turkey to the north 

"We mean all nations without any exception, which means Israel of course," said the Arab League's U.N. representative, Yahya Mahmassani.

John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States supports a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

"We have always said that the goal should be that the entire region be free of weapons of mass destruction and, yes, that includes every country in the region," Negroponte said.

Negroponte said, however, the timing was not right for such a resolution and reiterated U.S. accusations that Syria itself has "ongoing WMD programs."

"I said initially we think the focus of the moment should be, search for WMD in Iraq, second, Syria's own WMD," Negroponte said.

"Obviously if any member brings about a resolution for consideration, we'd be prepared to consider it. That doesn't mean we're prepared to adopt it, embrace it, or endorse it in any way, shape or form."

Several other Security Council ambassadors -- including those from Russia, China and Pakistan -- expressed general support for the idea of a WMD-free region.

"We have to study first the context and the content. We support countries that wish to have a weapon-free zone, all weapons types, biological, chemical, nuclear. ... Basically it is good," said Wang Yingfan, the Chinese ambassador.

"In principle, we have no problems with it," said Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy ambassador.

Other countries in the Middle East believe it is their right to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Israel's arsenal, according to the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security group.

The United States, Syria, Iran, Iraq and 183 states have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, in force since 1970. Israel is the only country in the Middle East not among them.

Earlier Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa pushed the idea of a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.

"The Syrian government is ready to sign a treaty under the U.N.'s supervision to make the whole Middle East a zone free from all mass destruction weapons -- nuclear, chemical and biological," he said in an interview with Australia's government-owned Special Broadcasting Service.

His statement came amid repeated U.S. claims that Syria has chemical weapons and has harbored fleeing leaders of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's toppled regime.

Syria shut its 376-mile (605-kilometer) border with Iraq Friday, contributing to Monday's capture of Abu Abbas, a Palestinian terrorist who planned the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Abbas attempted to flee to Syria but was turned back at the border, U.S. officials told CNN. He was arrested later in Baghdad.

U.S. officials have threatened sanctions against Syria, but said Tuesday the United States does not intend to use force unless "Syria does something really stupid and fires on American troops," diplomatic sources told CNN.

Earlier this week, U.S. troops shut down a pipeline in northern Iraq that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said was carrying oil to Syria in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Syrian officials deny the allegations against them.

CNN's Elizabeth Neisloss contributed to this report.

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