updated 4/12/2010 8:56:16 AM ET 2010-04-12T12:56:16

Presidents, prime ministers and other leaders from 47 countries start work Monday on a battle plan to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands.

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The host, U.S. President Barack Obama, is looking for global help in his goal of ensuring all nuclear materials worldwide are secured from theft or diversion within four years.

On the eve of what would be the largest assembly of world leaders hosted by an American president since 1945 — the San Francisco conference to found the United Nations — Obama said nuclear materials in the hands of al-Qaida or another terrorist group "could change the security landscape in this country and around the world for years to come."

He opens the conference Monday with a working dinner, and meets individually that day with the leaders of Jordan, Malaysia, Armenia and China.

The sessions close Tuesday with a joint statement on efforts to prevent the transfer of nuclear materials and technology and to keep them locked up.

Ahead of the conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that she, too, sees dirty bombs in terrorist hands as an even larger threat than regular nuclear weapons.

Merkel said Monday that such weapons "must not under any circumstances" fall into the hands of terror groups such as al-Qaida.

Video: Addressing nuclear threat

"We believe that the IAEA must be strengthened, we are ready to pledge additional finances to make this happen," Merkel said of the nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency.

Merkel praised Obama's decision to hold the conference as "extremely important," and said it fits well with Obama's global disarmament efforts.

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday that Iran's nuclear program must be watched closely, but he said sanctions on the regime would have to be smart and effective because sanctions often don't work.

"They should not lead to humanitarian catastrophe, where the whole Iranian community would start to hate the whole world," the Russian president said.

He added that there was no global consensus for sanctions on Iran's petroleum industry.

While sweeping or even bold new strategies were unlikely to emerge from the two-day gathering, Obama declared himself pleased with what he heard in warm-up meetings Sunday with the leaders of Kazakhstan, South Africa, India and Pakistan.

"I feel very good at this stage in the degree of commitment and a sense of urgency that I have seen from the world leaders so far on this issue," Obama said. "We think we can make enormous progress on this, and this then becomes part and parcel of the broader focus that we've had over the last several weeks."

He was referring to what had gone before this, the fourth leg of his campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The United States is the only country to use the weapons, two bombs dropped on Japan to force its surrender in World War II.

The high-flown ambition, which the president admits will probably not be reality in his lifetime, began a year ago in Prague when he laid out plans for significant nuclear reductions and a nuclear-weapons-free world.

In the meantime, he has approved a new nuclear policy for the United States, promising last week to reduce America's nuclear arsenal, refrain from nuclear tests and not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. North Korea and Iran were not included in that pledge because they do not cooperate with other countries on nonproliferation standards.

That was Tuesday, and two days later, on the anniversary of the Prague speech, Obama flew back to the Czech Republic capital where he and Medvedev signed a new treaty that reduces each side's deployed nuclear arsenal to 1,550 weapons.

Medvedev also arrives Monday to sign a long-delayed agreement to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium from Cold War-era nuclear weapons — the type of preventive action Obama wants the summit to inspire.

Obama begins Monday with a morning meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose intelligence apparatus is deeply involved in the Afghan war.

He then will sit down one-on-one with the leaders of Malaysia, Ukraine, Armenia and China.

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