Western nations clashed with Russia, China and developing states on Monday over whether to grant Syria's bid for United Nations aid in planning a nuclear power plant while it is under investigation for alleged covert atomic work.

At issue is a project worth $350,000, to be spent over three years, in which the IAEA would help Syria define a suitable location for a nuclear reactor.

Diplomats in the 35-nation UN nuclear watchdog governors' meeting said the United States, France, Canada and the European Union as a whole called for the project to be frozen.

China, Russia and developing nations on the governing board disagreed, objecting to "political interference" in the agency's aid program for civilian nuclear energy development.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency urged the policymaking board to clear the project, saying Syria's IAEA membership rights should not be curbed as long as it was not proved to have pursued nuclear weaponry in secret.

Referring to the IAEA statute, ElBaradei indicated Monday that the organization's technical cooperation projects could only be stalled if a member country was found to have violated IAEA rules, if it did not pay its dues, or was under sanctions of the United Nations Security Council.

ElBaradei pointed out that Israel had its IAEA technical aid curtailed under a UN resolution in 1991, after it had destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

Western nations were alarmed by an IAEA report last week saying a Syrian building bombed by Israel in 2007 bore similarities to a nuclear reactor and inspectors had found striking amounts of uranium particles in desert sands there.

The findings were not enough to conclude a covert reactor of North Korean design meant to produce plutonium for atom bombs was once there, as U.S. intelligence suggests, the report said.

But it said further investigation at the site and visits to three others as well as more Syrian transparency were needed.

Syria has said all four locations are conventional military sites, the uranium came from missiles Israel used in the bombing and that wider, intrusive IAEA access was unacceptable on national security grounds, noting its state of war with Israel.

"There are claims against Syria, which we're looking at. There were claims against Iraq, which were proven bonkers (mad), and after, the result was a terrible war," ElBaradei said in remarks to the closed gathering relayed to Reuters.

U.S. assertions Saddam Hussein had a mass-destruction weapon program led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq but proved unfounded.

"So we have to be very careful when we talk about an investigation," ElBaradei said.

"Even people who are not a lawyer would know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty. And we continue to act on that basis."

The proposal stirring the governors was a "technical and economic feasibility and site selection" study drafted by the IAEA Secretariat for a nuclear power station in Syria.

Syria applied for the study in August 2007, three weeks before Israel's bombing, according to an IAEA briefing paper circulated to the governors. It certified that the project did not undercut IAEA safeguards standards in Syria.

The IAEA conducts "technical cooperation" (TC) projects in member states worldwide seeking to develop peaceful nuclear energy. The Syrian study was among 629 projects up for approval later this week at the governors' year-end meeting.

An EU statement to the meeting said it would have been preferable to suspend the project for a year to give time to resolve the accusations against Syria. It did not say where the EU would stand if the matter came to a vote later this week.

Diplomats said there were some internal EU differences over whether to join the U.S.-led bid to block the project.

If a vote happens, it would be rare and divisive and erode the IAEA's board's tradition of taking decisions by consensus.

In 2006, governors decided by consensus to strip Iran of an IAEA safety design study at a heavy-water reactor project over concerns the plant could be secretly used to make plutonium. Iran says it will make radio-isotopes for medical care there.

But that decision was legally clear cut as Iran was under UN sanctions over non-compliance with IAEA rules for failing to declare proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment work and denying the IAEA full access to verify it was for peaceful ends.