43 nations to seek Middle East free of WMDs

/ Source: The Associated Press

More than 40 nations, including Israel and Arab states, agreed Sunday to work for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

A final declaration from a summit launching the Union for the Mediterranean says the members will "pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction."

That includes nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their delivery systems, the statement says. The countries will "consider practical steps to prevent the proliferation" of such weapons, it says.

Signatories to the declaration included Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and leaders from Syria and countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Israel is widely believed to have a stockpile of nuclear weapons. But Israel's official policy is called "nuclear ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear bombs.

The question of nuclear weapons in the region is particularly sensitive lately, given rising tensions between Israel and Iran, which the United States and its allies believe is seeking nuclear arms.

Tehran maintains its uranium enrichment activities are aimed at producing nuclear energy, and has defied U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend enrichment.

Fears that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction drove the U.S.-led invasion there in 2003, though such weapons have not been found.

Israeli jets destroyed what U.S. intelligence officials said was believed to be a nuclear reactor in Syria last year. U.S. officials believe North Korea had aided Syria with a nuclear program whose aim was to produce plutonium, though it was unclear whether it was meant for weapons development. Syrian officials said it was part of a non-nuclear military program.