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Bush proposes Mideast free-trade zone

'The momentum of freedom is growing'

President Bush receives an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Friday.
President Bush receives an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Friday.

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- The United States will use its "influence and idealism" to "replace old hatred with new hopes" in the Middle East, establishing a free-trade zone with countries in the region within a decade and working to improve their educational and legal systems, President Bush said Friday.

"Reformers in the Middle East are gaining influence, and the momentum of freedom is growing," Bush told graduates at the University of South Carolina in a commencement address. "We have reached a moment of tremendous promise, and the United States will seize that moment for the sake of peace."

"The way forward to the Middle East is not a mystery. It is a matter of will and vision and action. The way forward depends on serving the interests of the living, instead of settling the accounts of the past."

The president also said the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, showed that reform in the Middle East is directly in the U.S. national interest.

"The bitterness of that region can bring violence and suffering to our own cities. The advance of freedom and peace in the Middle East would drain this bitterness and increase our own security," he said.

Bush made his remarks the same day that Secretary of State Colin Powell left for the Middle East to discuss a U.S.-backed "road map" for the peace process with regional leaders, including new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is popularly known as Abu Mazen, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.(Full story)

The president said Powell will carry his "personal commitment" to work "without tiring" toward establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living side-by-side in peace with Israel.

"If the Palestinian people take concrete steps to crack down on terror, continue on a path of peace, reform and democracy, they and all the world will see the flag of Palestine raised over a free and independent nation," he said.

A White House statement released Friday said Bush has invited Sharon to visit Washington on May 20.

"The United States and Israel have a firm friendship and the two leaders will discuss efforts to move ahead towards a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians," the statement said.

Bush: Economic gains will lead to political reform

Noting that the gross domestic products of the Arab nations combined are smaller than that of Spain alone, Bush called for creation of a U.S.-Middle East free-trade area within a decade. Advancing economic gains would create an impetus for political reform in the region, the president said.

"The Arab world has a great cultural tradition but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time," Bush said.

If corruption and "self-dealing" are replaced by free markets and fair laws, "the people of the Middle East will grow into prosperity and freedom," he said.

The United States has free trade agreements with two countries in the region -- Israel and Jordan -- and is pursuing another with Morocco.

In addition to moving toward a regional free-trade area, similar to one contemplated for Central America, the United States would also lobby on behalf of some Middle Eastern countries that want to join the World Trade Organization, a senior administration official told CNN. New bilateral treaties between the United States and countries in the region are also possible, the official said.

Bush, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree during Friday's commencement, also told graduates that the United States would co-sponsor, with Bahrain, a forum on judicial reform in the Middle East, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the high court.

Oppression of women in the Arab world, including the denial of legal rights and educational opportunities, is holding back the region, Bush said.

"No society can succeed and prosper while denying basic rights and opportunities to the women of their country," he said. "As trade expands and knowledge spreads in the Middle East, as women gain a place of equality and respect, as the rule of law takes hold, all peoples of that region will see a new day of justice and a new day of prosperity."

Bush also said the United States would pay to have early reading books translated into Arabic and donate them to schools in the region in an effort to improve literacy, especially among girls and women.

"Making the most of economic opportunities will require broader and better education, especially among women, who have faced the greatest disadvantages," he said.

--CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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