Bush plans push for Arab freedom In an address today, the President was to outline a strategy of economic and political change throughout the Middle East.

Posted: May 09, 2003

WASHINGTON — Fresh from victory in Iraq, President Bush today will challenge the Arab world to embrace political and economic freedom as the fastest path to peace and stability in the Middle East.

In a commencement address at the University of South Carolina, Bush also will outline plans for a Middle East free-trade zone that could ultimately link the economies of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The address signals Bush's determination to use the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a catalyst for economic and political change throughout the region. It also serves notice to Saudi Arabia and other Islamic autocracies that Bush is serious about trying to spread democracy beyond Iraq's borders.

"What he's really saying is that we have an opportunity that the United States is willing to seize," said a senior administration official, who offered a preview of the speech on the condition of anonymity. "The whole theme throughout this speech will be that freedom and liberty equal peace and security."

Bush's vision for the Arab world is a key element in his strategy to build on the U.S. victory in Iraq and try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The President and his foreign-policy advisers are convinced that fostering democracy and economic opportunity for Palestinians and Arab nations is the best way to eradicate terrorism and promote regional peace.

Later today, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will travel to the region to push for a Middle East peace plan that calls for creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Powell will seek support for the proposal in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Many Arab leaders contend that the first step to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is improving conditions for the Palestinians, and they might not like much of what Bush has to say. They want Bush to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to remove security checkpoints, roll back Israeli forces, and dismantle Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.

The administration official said Bush would make clear in his speech that he expected Israel to stop settlement activity in return for a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism and other steps.

Most of Bush's speech is directed at the Arab world. Although he will note that about half of all Muslims live under democratic governments, citing Indonesia and Turkey as examples, he will also make the case that the Arab world is "missing out on the economic progress of our time," the official said.

Contact reporter Ron Hutcheson at 202-383-6101 or rhutcheson@krwashington.com.

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