English Sunday, May 11, 2003  

Bush to Outline Proposed Mideast Free Trade Area

Washington (Reuters): Looking to build on the Iraq war victory, President Bush on Friday will call for a free trade area between the United States and countries of the Middle East within a decade.

Top aides said Bush will make the announcement in a commencement address at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Bush, already embarked on a new Middle East peace initiative, will tie his free trade offer to the countries making necessary governmental reforms such as fighting corruption and terrorism, protecting property rights and developing good business practices.

The president believes that people of Middle Eastern nations 'deserve to be able to participate in the economic prosperity that has been experienced in many other parts in the world,' said a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States already has free trade agreements with Israel and Jordan, and wants to conclude a trade pact with Morocco by the end of the year.

Bush would work to advance the goal of a regional trade area through a series of graduated steps which would include helping reforming countries become members of the World Trade Organization and negotiating bilateral investment and trade treaties, the official said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick will attend a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan in June, and among the topics they will discuss there will be conditions for membership in the trade pact, officials said.

The offer was likely to be welcomed in the region. Washington has been under pressure for years from Saudi Arabia to help Riyadh gain membership in the World Trade Organization. Egypt has been lobbying the United States for a free-trade pact in part as a reward for its help in the Iraq war.

Bush is attempting to lay the groundwork for an overall Middle East peace agreement with a 'road map' calling for a Palestinian state as early as 2005.

Powell is to visit the region this weekend hoping to get the parties to take initial steps such as for Palestinians to cease violence and Israel to ease curbs on Palestinians.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said a regional free trade pact could help but would not on its own be enough to get Arabs and Israelis to make peace.

'Free-trade agreements could make sense,' he added. 'But I don't think in-and-of-themselves they will be the catalyst for regional Middle East peace. There are some very thorny issues there.'

The U.S. image in the Arab world has taken a beating from the Iraq war and the perception that the war on terrorism has been directed at Muslims. Bush believes the Iraq war aftermath could have a positive effect on the region.

Bush said on Thursday he was optimistic about the possibility of making progress on the peace plan.

'Of course we're going to make progress. Yes, we'll make progress, absolutely,' Bush told reporters as he met the Emir of Qatar in the Oval Office.

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