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Updated: Sat 8 Jan 2005 | 05:35 GMT
 
Iraq's neighbours to urge Sunnis to vote
 
Thu Jan 6, 2005 12:32 PM GMT
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By Suleiman al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbours are to urge Sunnis to vote in upcoming Iraqi elections to ensure the minority plays a role in Iraq and curb Shi'ite Iran's rising influence in the country, diplomats say.

They said a conference of Sunni-dominated Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Thursday would stress Iraq's Arab nature and warn against outside efforts to influence the vote in a communique already agreed by their foreign ministers.

"The statement is a key reference to the fact that all groups of Iraqis should head to the polls so that they can exercise their future without outside influence," a spokesperson of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry told Reuters.

Diplomats and Jordanian officials privately told Reuters "outside influence" referred to Iran, which backs Shi'ite groups expected to do well in the elections, and to a lesser extent Sunni Syria. About 60 percent of Iraqis are Shi'ites.

They said the pro-U.S. leaders aimed to encourage wavering Iraqi Sunnis to vote on January 30 to curb such influence, and also to send a veiled warning to Tehran to back off.

In an interview published on Thursday, Jordan's King Abdullah warned Iraq's unity was at stake.

"We expect all the religious and political affiliations to participate in Iraqi elections so that no group would feel it is marginalised in future," he told Kuwait newspaper al-Rai al-Aam.

"Our duty is not to watch idly with our hands tied. We warn against any effort to fragment the unity of any Arab state."

King Abdullah said last month Tehran wanted to establish a Shi'ite belt from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq. His comments echoed fears of secular rule held by many secular Iraqis.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Jordan was meddling in the vote and he would boycott Thursday's meeting.

A Shi'ite list of leaders with close ties to Iran was expected to dominate a 275-member Iraqi parliament. Under U.S. pressure, Washington's Arab allies have backed down from seeking an election delay that could persuade embattled Sunnis to vote.

A threatened widespread Sunni boycott could weaken the legitimacy of a post-election government.

"It is hard to predict how the Iraqi elections will proceed in the light of the precarious circumstances in which the Iraqi people have found themselves," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the state news agency Petra.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain fear their own Shi'ite populations could demand a bigger political say if Iraq's elections hand power to the majority Shiites.

They also fear an Islamist insurgency in Iraq could spill over into the oil-rich Gulf, already battling militant violence by sympathisers of Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.