Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Bush administration is looking to build political bridges to Middle Eastern countries through closer trade relationships.
The war with Iraq has led to strong anti-American sentiment, street protests and calls for consumer boycotts of U.S. products in the Middle East.
But U.S. trade officials continue to engage their counterparts in the region, and interest in free-trade agreements has not lagged among Middle Eastern governments, according to U.S. trade officials.
"The long-term success of this [post-Iraq] effort is building economic openness, growth, prosperity, hope in the Middle East and [Persian] Gulf. That's where some of the work that's already been done with Jordan, Morocco, is spurring changes," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick told reporters this week.
The United States has a free-trade agreement with Jordan and is negotiating one with Morocco.
The trade policy offers incentives - namely, access to the U.S. market - to countries that reform their economies. Trade officials point to work with Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as those countries consider World Trade Organization membership, trade and investment framework agreements with Egypt and Bahrain, and the free-trade agreement talks with Morocco.
"Because of the economic steps with Egypt and Bahrain, we're talking about [free-trade agreements] there. There is a lot of activity that continues to move forward," said a U.S. trade official, who asked not to be named.
Egypt and Bahrain have signed the U.S. trade and investment framework agreements, relatively brief documents that set up a framework for dialogue.
Officials from both countries have called for closer economic ties through free-trade agreements.
The Bush administration would have to notify Congress of its intent to negotiate a free-trade agreement with another country. Once a deal is reached, Congress can approve or reject it but cannot change its terms.
"We hope to reach a free-trade agreement," said Khalifa Ali Al-Khalifa, Bahrain's ambassador to the United States.
Officials from Bahrain met with Mr. Zoellick and members of his staff this week under the trade and investment framework agreement, which was signed in June.
"We are committed to strengthening the U.S.-Bahrain economic relationship, including through a possible free-trade agreement," Mr. Zoellick said after Wednesday's meeting.
The island nation, which is located in the Persian Gulf and is about 31/2 times the size of the District, is looking to broaden …