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Visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi yesterday called for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

But he added that Israeli leaders should distinguish between Tehran's legitimate civil nuclear energy program and any attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, which must be prevented.

At a news conference with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, both leaders spoke of the need to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Prodi also called on Hamas to free abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Prodi will to discuss ways to promote a Middle East settlement during his three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank.

"We can never accept a country sworn to Israel's destruction becoming a nuclear power," Olmert said.

"We agree without reservation... Iran must not develop a military nuclear capability," said Prodi. "Iran's refusal to accept Security Council decisions brings greater sanctions closer, and takes us further down a path no one wants.

"If Iran wants to play a role as a regional power, it must pursue stabilization of the region. A path toward nuclear (weapons) is the exact opposite of that," he said.

In closed conversations, Prodi said Iran had started developing its nuclear program during the Shah's reign in the 1970s. He said the know-how and technology Iran now has cannot be reversed, but political options sill remain to block Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

At a meeting with president-elect Shimon Peres, Prodi said yesterday he had been in Israel for only one day, but already understood that the Iran issue should be at the top of the world's order of priorities.

Peres said Italy has an important role to fill in uniting European forces against Iran and acting, with the Untied States' cooperation, to impose harsh, effective economic sanctions on Iran.

"I believe that Iran's nuclear program could be halted by economic sanctions," Peres said.

Prodi heard similar opinions from Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prodi said that Italy was paying a high price for sanctions against Iran. His country's trade with Iran had slumped, he said, adding that the existing sanctions were a burden on his country, but they had been implemented "diligently."

Olmert said he believed in the international community's ability to change Iran's policy.

Prodi also demanded the immediate release of Shalit, while reaffirming his country's support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

"I call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit without further delay," Prodi said. "He has been in captivity for too long."

Asked about Israeli media reports that Italy is helping to mediate the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah last year, Prodi said Rome "had made several requests for information on their whereabouts, condition and possible terms for freeing them, but we never received specific information that could secure their release."

Olmert thanked Prodi for sending Italian troops and a commander to the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon. Prodi said he believed the force's mandate would be extended soon.

The Italian prime minister said he knew nothing about a report in La Stampa that his government had prevented his country's force in UNIFIL to obtain information about the abducted Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.