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Last Updated: Friday, 9 May, 2003, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
US backing Mid-East trade plan
US President George Bush and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at the White House, 8 May 2003
President Bush wants to remove trade barriers with the Middle East

US President George W Bush will on Friday call for a free trade area between the US and the Middle East within a decade, officials have said.

The proposed free trade area would build on existing US free trade agreements with Israel and Jordan, an unnamed senior administration official was quoted as saying.

Washington hopes Iraq and a new Palestinian state would be among countries that qualify for membership, the official said.

Mr Bush will also focus on the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, following Washington's publication last week of a "roadmap" peace plan, envisaging a Palestinian state by 2005.

Mr Bush is due to make a speech at the University of South Carolina at about 1900 GMT.

Strings attached

Now that Saddam Hussein's regime has fallen in Iraq, Washington is keen use the opportunity to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, as well as end trade barriers between the US and states in the region.

The president believes Middle East nations "deserve to be able to participate in the economic prosperity that has been experienced in many other parts of the world," the senior White House official said.

Free trade agreements could make sense, but I don't think in-and-of themselves they will be the catalyst for regional Middle East peace
David Makovsky, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Trade Representative Robert Zoellick will attend a World Economic Forum in Jordan next month, where they will discuss conditions for membership in a new trade pact, the official said.

Nations wanting to join a free trade area would need to have a market economy and a commitment to tackle terrorism, the official said.

"We'll discuss with the parties in the region as we go forward about what are the conditions for participation by any specific country," he said. "It will take time to meet those goals.

"That's why he's outlined a realistic goal of a decade."

Morocco pact

The US has said it wants to conclude a trade pact with Morocco by the end of the year, while, on Thursday, Mr Zoellick said Bahrain and Egypt were "serious candidates" for free trade deals.

As a member of the World Trade Organisation, the US also has agreements on bi-lateral trade with several other Middle Eastern countries that are part of the group.

However, the history of trade relations among Middle East states shows that change can be slow in coming.

The six Gulf Arab states first proposed a free trade regime among themselves in 1983 but it was 20 years before a customs union was put in place.

Some experts have also cast doubt on the impetus any US-Middle East free trade deal would bring to the search for peace in the region.

"Free trade agreements could make sense, but I don't think in-and-of themselves they will be the catalyst for regional Middle East peace," said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"There are some very thorny issues there."

Mr Powell is travelling to the Middle East this weekend where he will hold separate talks with Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, more commonly known as Abu Mazen.

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