UNITED NATIONS -- Syria asked the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to approve an Arab-backed resolution calling for the Middle East to be free of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States said it supports the idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, but accused Syria of having such weapons itself.
The Syrian resolution was aimed at Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons. Israel refuses to confirm or deny the claim and is not party to global treaties aimed at controlling the spread of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
The proposed resolution calls on all countries in the Middle East to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear test ban treaty, and the conventions to control chemical and biological weapons.
"We believe such a draft resolution ... is a very important factor for the peace process and settling the peace and security in the Middle East," Syrian U.N. Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe said.
With the war in Iraq winding down, the United States has accused Syria of sheltering senior members of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. U.S. officials have also said Syria has chemical weapons and is sponsoring terrorism. Arabs have blamed Israel for the escalation in U.S. threats against Syria.
Wehbe denied that his country has any weapons of mass destruction and accused the United States of making false allegations to cover up "the aggression and invasion against the Iraqi people and ... the Israeli killing of the Palestinian people."
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington said Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and once the No. 3 man in the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, apparently had surfaced in Syria.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shaaban denied the accusation, and said Syria was not sheltering any members of Saddam's regime.
Wehbe said the draft resolution demonstrates Syria is ready to prove it has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. He cited a statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa that the government was ready to sign any U.N. agreement or treaty on setting up a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Mexico's U.N. Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser said council experts will meet Thursday to discuss the draft resolution. If they cannot agree on a text, the draft will return to the council for consideration, he said.
Syria is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but not the chemical or biological weapons conventions. Syria's deputy U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said his country would join the other conventions if Israel does as well.
Russia, China and Pakistan supported the idea of the Middle East being a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, known as WMD -- and so did the United States.
"We favor as a goal the removal of all weapons of mass destruction from the entire Middle East region," said U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte.
But the United States sees "a problem" in the draft resolution, he said. "We think the focus at the moment is the search for WMD in Iraq," he said. "Secondly, we're concerned about Syria's own WMD."
The United States also wants progress on eliminating weapons of mass destruction to go hand in hand with progress toward a lasting peace in the Middle East, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A new roadmap to peace supported by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia was expected to be released shortly.
Arab nations have long pressed for the Middle East to be free of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. But the draft introduced Wednesday is the first Security Council resolution to call for all countries in the region to adhere to all the relevant treaties.