updated 12/14/2004 1:49:50 AM ET 2004-12-14T06:49:50

The Arab-Israeli conflict has kept Arabs from addressing other security concerns, including the need to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, told a forum of international leaders that the Middle East must free itself of all weapons of mass destruction.

“We only focus on land for peace, we never really look at security,” ElBaradei said. “Clearly we need to have a nuclear weapon free zone, clearly we have to rid ourselves of chemical and biological weapons and that has to be, again, part of the security dialogue that should to be parallel to the peace process.”

Israel refuses to either confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the United States and others accuse non-Arab Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies. The IAEA recently authorized ElBaradei to monitor Iran’s commitment to freeze uranium enrichment, which can produce either low-grade fuel for nuclear reactors or the raw material for atomic weapons.

At the conference at which ElBaradei spoke, retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander and Democratic presidential candidate, called on Arab countries to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Go to your neighbor across the Gulf and say in clear terms: Your efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities are not welcome, they are not appreciated, they won’t improve your security and they won’t improve our security,” Clark said.

ElBaradei said Arab states need to consider such questions as how to deal with neighbors like Iran and whether regional or international alliances or alliances with major powers would better serve their security needs.

“The problem is we never really defined, in the Arab world, what is our security threat,” he said.

Security in the region is undermined by poverty, lack of basic freedoms and violations of human rights, which breeds terrorism and extremism, ElBaradei said.

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