Bush calls for free trade zone in Middle East

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The Independent Online

President George Bush stepped up his drive yesterday for reform in the Middle East by offering to help launch a US-backed free trade area in the region within a decade, once peace had been established.

President George Bush stepped up his drive yesterday for reform in the Middle East by offering to help launch a US-backed free trade area in the region within a decade, once peace had been established.

Speaking on the eve of a visit to Israel and the occupied territories by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, Mr Bush said that Arab countries had a combined economy as large as that of Spain. The goal, he said, was to bring new prosperity and stability to the Middle East by rewarding governments which backed political and economic reform.

The proposal builds on an earlier initiative by Washington to quicken change in rigid Middle East regimes by promoting educational and social initiatives. The free trade agreements would boost free markets and the rule of law, and clamp down on corruption.

Washington has free trade agreements with Israel and Jordan and wants to conclude a trade pact with Morocco.

General Powell will hold talks with the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon this weekend.

¿ Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday that a demand by the Israeli army that foreign nationals entering the Gaza Strip sign a waiver releasing the army of liability for their safety "was unacceptable".

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