Gulf Arabs want all Iraqis to take part in polls
Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, worried by rising Shi'ite power in Iraq, urged the United States on Tuesday to ensure all religious and ethnic groups take part in next month's elections, which Shi'ites look poised to win.
After a two-day summit, the six pro-Western oil-rich states also condemned foreign meddling in the affairs of their neighbor, a veiled reference to Shi'ite power Iran, which the United States accuses of influencing Iraqi groups.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain fear their own Shi'ite populations could demand a bigger political say if Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary election hands power to the majority Shi'ites.
"We hope that the United States works effectively with the United Nations and the international community to allow all the people of Iraq, from all sects, to participate in the political process which is represented in holding elections," the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) said.
Iraqi insurgents trying to wreck the election process have been particularly active in Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government fears they will seek to intimidate would-be voters on election day.
The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Iraq has been under U.S. occupation since a March 2003 war toppled Saddam Hussein.
Asked about alleged Iranian interference in Iraq, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa told reporters: "There is total agreement that there should absolutely be no interference in Iraq from any party.
"We hope that the Iraqi people can move to another phase of security and safety ... but this interference leads to instability and instability in Iraq is instability in the (whole) region," he added.
The alliance also called on US President Bush to make good on promises to set up an independent Palestinian state "existing peacefully beside an Israeli state" and renewed their commitment to fight terror.
The statement made no direct mention of a U.S.-Bahraini free trade deal which has raised the ire of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia and cast a pall over the summit.
Sheikh Mohammed said the Gulf leaders had agreed to postpone discussions within the GCC about the pact, but added that implementation of the deal and bilateral talks between the United States and other Gulf countries would proceed.
"All GCC states are bilaterally negotiating with the United States because the United States says it cannot negotiate with a bloc," he said. "The deals are going on and the negotiations are going on."
Omani Foreign Affairs Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah told reporters: "We are negotiating now with the United states and we believe that economic ties with America...will bring great benefits to the Gulf region."
Analysts say Saudi Arabia, the least liberalized and biggest Gulf economy, fears U.S. goods imported tariff-free into Bahrain will be re-sold in its market. It is the only Gulf state with a land link to the island of Bahrain, the poorest Gulf Arab state.
Washington plans to also hold talks with the UAE to sign a similar deal to abolish external tariffs and give U.S. goods a foothold inside the Gulf.
The bloc, which owns nearly half the world's oil reserves, plans a common market by 2007 and a single currency by 2010.