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U.N. strikes deal on nuclear elimination

The five leading nuclear powers _ U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China _ agree to disarm, though no timetable is set.

The five nuclear powers on the Security Council agreed Saturday to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, as part of a new disarmament agenda approved by 187 countries.

The agreement by the signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was reached after all-night deliberations and intense pressure on Iraq and the United States to settle a dispute over Baghdad's compliance with U.N. sanctions.

"Today is a great day for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament," said Algerian U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Baali, the conference president, as he banged the final gavel to loud applause.

Although the agreement gives no timetable, and delegates said it would take many years to achieve a nuclear-free world, it marked the first time the major nuclear powers had publicly affirmed their obligation to disarm.

The 5-year review conference for the global treaty _ aimed at controlling and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons _ required a consensus, and the U.S.-Iraq dispute threatened to sabotage approval of a final document.

Signaling the importance Washington placed on Iraq's compliance with nuclear agreements, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Einhorn, who is in charge of nonproliferation, flew to New York to take part in the final talks.

Hours after his arrival, Canadian Ambassador Chris Westdal, who had worked through the night, announced an agreement to delegates, saying "the last piece in our puzzle is complete."

Delegates to the conference said the new nuclear agenda was significant because it represented the first time in 15 years that the 187 nuclear and non-nuclear states were able to reach a consensus.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it "marks a significant step forward in humanity's pursuit of a more peaceful world _ a world free of nuclear dangers, a world with strengthened global norms for nuclear nonproliferation."

On Thursday, the five nuclear powers _ the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China _ agreed to "an unequivocal undertaking" to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

The NPT, which came into force in 1970, has only four holdouts: India and Pakistan, which conducted rival nuclear tests in 1998, Israel, which is thought to have nuclear weapons, and Cuba.

Delegates stressed the importance of getting those nations to sign _ a step many concede is crucial to disarmament.

The final document reaffirmed "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT" and urged India and Pakistan, despite their tests, to become parties to the treaty "as non-nuclear weapon states."

But China's U.N. Ambassador in Geneva, Hu Xiaodi, was critical, saying the document did not "fully reflect the current international situation, nor does it call for the removal of fundamental obstacles to nuclear disarmament."

The nuclear haves and have-nots also agreed on other important steps leading up to a total ban on nuclear weapons, including a moratorium on nuclear weapons tests pending activation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, further reductions of tactical nuclear weapons, increased transparency by the nuclear powers on reporting information about their nuclear arsenals and making weapons safer by taking them off "hair-trigger" alert.

They also agreed to permanently and irreversibly remove plutonium and uranium from nuclear warheads, and to negotiate within the next five years a treaty banning the production of weapons-grade nuclear material.

The U.S.-Iraq dispute centered on Iraq's compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, which placed Iraq under sanctions until its facilities for producing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons had been shut down.

Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Saeed Hasan initially said Baghdad would accept an account of the International Atomic Energy Agency's January inspection of its reactors under the NPT treaty _ but was vehemently opposed to demands by the United States for a statement that the IAEA inspection would not substitute for Security Council obligations.

Under the compromise, the conference noted an April 24 statement by the IAEA director-general that since Iraq has suspended weapons inspections since December 1998 "the agency has not been in a position to provide any assurance of Iraq's compliance" with the U.N. sanctions.

Hasan entered a reservation on the compromise, reiterating that there was "no reason" to include Iraq or the Security Council resolution in the document.

But without naming Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Robert Gray said it was important that the conference expressed "profound concern about cases of non-compliance."