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ARAB NEIGHBORS

Jordan, Egypt warn of Shi'ite domination

CAIRO -- The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers yesterday issued a veiled warning to regional religious leaders against using next month's critical elections in Iraq to create a sectarian, Shi'ite-dominated state.

Most of the Arab countries close to Iraq have Sunni majorities, and their governments are believed to fear that a Shi'ite-dominated regime in Iraq would both embolden their own Shi'ite communities and lead to Iraq's moving closer to Iran.

"We should preserve Iraq's Arabism -- this unites Shi'ites and Sunnis," said Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi of Jordan. "We do not want to politicize religion."

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit of Egypt told the same press conference his country shares Jordan's concern about sectarianism in Iraq.

"There should be no division in Iraq. Shi'ites and Sunnis are all Arabs," Aboul Gheit said.

Earlier this month, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned of a possible Shi'ite hegemony in the region. In an interview with The Washington Post, the king accused Shi'ite-dominated Iran of trying to influence the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, where Shi'ite candidates are expected to fare well. Shi'ites have long constituted the majority in Iraq, but they were held down by dictator Saddam Hussein, who favored the minority Sunnis.

King Abdullah said more than 1 million Iranians had crossed the border into Iraq, with many intending to vote in the elections. He said this was with the encouragement of the Iranian government.

Iran has denied allegations it is trying to influence Iraq's political process.

Asked if his country had evidence supporting the king's charges, Jordan's Mulqi said, "I don't think that His Majesty says something without evidence. Yes, we in Jordan have enough evidence that Iraq's Arabism is in danger."

In Jordan, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq met King Abdullah to discuss how the Iraqi government is preparing for elections in the face of the insurgency.

Allawi reiterated to reporters that elections will be held on time, despite calls for a postponement until the violence has subsided. Iraqis are to elect a transitional assembly that will appoint a government and draft a new constitution. "Our aim is to reunite all the Iraqis for comprehensive elections," Allawi said.

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