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U.S. Favors WMD-Free Mideast, Linked to Peace
46 minutes ago
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By Jonathan Wright

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it favored a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction but linked international inspection of Israel's weapons programs to peace with Syria and Lebanon.


"We would like to see that whole region free of weapons of mass destruction," Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) told a news conference, in response to questions on whether Washington is willing to apply equal standards to Syria and Israel.

On Monday, Powell threatened economic and diplomatic measures against Syria if it does not meet a range of demands, including abandoning an alleged chemical weapons program.

Syria denies having such a program and has offered to open its facilities to U.N. inspections as part of a regional disarmament campaign which includes Israel.

Powell repeated the list of U.S. concerns on Tuesday, which includes the weapons program, support for groups which Washington labels terrorist, and suspicions that the Syrians allowed fighters to enter Iraq (news - web sites) or allowed fugitive Iraqi leaders into Syria.

"We hope that Syria understands now that there is a new environment in the region with the end of the regime of (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein (news - web sites), and that Syria will reconsider its policies of past years and understand that there are better choices it can make," Powell said.

Pressed on inspection of the weapons programs of U.S. ally Israel, which is believed to have some 200 nuclear warheads outside any international inspection system, he said that "pieces will begin to fall in place" after peace between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.

"If we can move forward with a comprehensive peace process that leads to a comprehensive solution that creates a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a Jewish state, Israel, and ultimately have that comprehensive solution reach out and touch Lebanon and Syria, then I think a lot of pieces will begin to fall in place with respect to what people's various needs are," he said.

"But right now we will just continue to say that we believe that the entire region should be free of weapons of mass destruction," he added.

Powell said he hoped that the Palestinian legislature would confirm prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas "some time in the next week or so" so that the United States can publish a Middle East peace plan known as the "road map."

The Israelis and the Palestinians would then have a chance to comment on the peace plan and discuss those comments with each other, he added.

"This is going to be a very difficult process but I believe progress can be made if both sides enter this road map process with an understanding of the needs of the other side and with a good faith effort to use the new situation," he said.

"We have a new opportunity, an opportunity I think that is enhanced by what has happened by the removal of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," he added.

An Israeli delegation gave the United States its preliminary comments on the peace plan on Monday, after reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) is seeking some amendments to the document.

U.S. officials have said the plan is for implementation in its existing form, but Powell did not say that on Tuesday.

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