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Persian Gulf leaders OK Iraq election date
Updated: 2004-12-21 10:01

Leaders of Persian Gulf area nations backed the Jan. 30 date for Iraqi elections Monday, expressing hope that the ballot's outcome will reflect the makeup of Iraq's population.

The endorsement came at the start of a two-day meeting by the six nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which was also expected to focus on terrorism and upcoming elections in the Palestinian territories.

"The political system in Iraq has good details that protect the interests of all political and ethnic groups so a single political group will not impose its authority on others," said Bahrain's state minister for foreign affairs, Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar.

US President Bush has repeatedly said the Iraqi elections would be held on time, despite calls from critics that the level of violence must first be reduced. The administration says the vote is a key step in Iraq's democratic transformation following three decades of Saddam Hussein's rule.

"I have great confidence that a large section of Iraqi people have great awareness of the importance of the success of their democratic experience," Ghaffar said.

Iraq's Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the country's 26 million population, will likely dominate the polls. Such an outcome worries some neighboring Sunni-dominated countries and the United States, who are wary of a Shiite-run Iraq growing closer to its eastern neighbor, Iran.

Bahrain also defended a free trade agreement with the United States, which had been criticized by regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia as an accord that would weaken the collective bargaining power of the council and its members.

Ghaffar insisted that Bahrain was not breaking ranks with the Council, a loose political and economic alliance that also includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

"We are in an era of globalization and the most important aspect of this trend is economic freedom," Abdul Ghaffar said. He said free trade deals overcame restrictions that could obstruct development in the region.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan said current international conditions "call for the Gulf region to unite as a bloc and speak with one voice."

Bahrain's agreement is awaiting ratification by the U.S. Congress, but already two other members, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, are due to begin negotiations for free trade deals with America.

The trend toward separate deals with the United States indicates the Saudis are losing their power over the body.

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