WASHINGTON -- Asserting that "nowhere are the dangers of weapons proliferation more urgent than in the Middle East," President Bush proposed yesterday a freeze and eventual ban on surface-to-surface missiles by nations in the region and a halt to their acquiring nuclear-weapons material.
He also proposed that the major conventional arms sellers to the Middle East, including the United States, work out a system to prevent "destabilizing" weapons sales, make sure weapons don't fall into the wrong hands and notify one another of certain arms deals.
The initiative was widely welcomed as a start toward curbing weaponry in the region where more than a half-dozen major conflicts have erupted in the last five decades. But critics said that it fell short of what is needed, particularly in conventional arms.
In a commencement address to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the president said that post-Cold War military planners "must focus on more volatile regimes -- regions packed with modern weapons and seething with ancient ambitions."
"We are committed to stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Bush said. "But there is a danger that despite our efforts, by the end of this century nearly two dozen developing nations could have ballistic missiles. Many already have nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs."
Mr. Bush said that halting the spread of conventional and unconventional arms in the Middle East "will require the cooperation of many states, in the region and around the world."
The missile plan proposes "a freeze on the acquisition, production and testing of surface-to-surface missiles by states in the region with a view to the ultimate elimination of such missiles from their arsenals," according to a White House fact sheet.
At least seven Middle Eastern countries -- Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Libya and Yemen -- have types of such missiles.
Under the proposal, suppliers would step up efforts to coordinate export licensing for equipment, technology and services used to manufacture such missiles.
Mr. Bush's proposed ban on production and acquisition of nuclear material usable for weapons would immediately affect only Israel, the region's only nuclear power. But Iraq was seeking nuclear capability.
The administration urged all states in the region to accede to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and reiterated its support for an eventual nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East.
The Bush initiative urges Middle Eastern countries, as a confidence-building measure, to begin observing the Chemical Weapons Convention even before that global compact is completed.
The plan outlined yesterday called for strengthening international regimes to bar biological weapons and urged Middle Eastern states to "adopt biological-weapons confidence building measures."
The proposal urges the five biggest arms suppliers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France -- to meet and discuss guidelines to restrain "destabilizing" sales of conventional weaponry as well as weapons of mass destruction.
The plan seemed likely to draw support from four out of the five arms-supplying nations, but China remained a question mark.
Under the Bush proposal, suppliers would commit themselves to "a general code of responsible arms transfers" allowing suppliers to notify one another of "certain" arms sales and to protest violations.
The guidelines "will permit states in the region to acquire the conventional capabilities they legitimately need to deter and defend against military aggression," the White House said.
The conventional weapons part of the proposal was widely anticipated to be the weakest, and it drew the most criticism yesterday.
"It is harshest on those weapons that don't exist or can't be used and easiest on those weapons that do exist and can be used," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
Mr. Mendelsohn said that a moratorium on arms sales would be more appropriate. Even on weapons of mass destruction, the plan was lacking in not proposing a weapons-free zone up front, he said.
Janne Nolan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the president's plan little more than a ratification of existing U.S. policy, which includes continued arms sales to U.S. allies in the Middle East.