BEIRUT, Lebanon – Iran (search) should stay out of Iraq's elections, President Bush said Wednesday on pan-Arab television.
"Iranians should not be trying to unduly influence the elections," Bush said of Sunday's polls in an interview with the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya, according to a White House transcript.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed fears that Iran, a Shiite Muslim-majority state on Iraq's eastern border, is trying to expand its influence through the elections, in which Iraqi Shiites (search) are expected to win the largest number of seats in a transitional national assembly.
Iran has rejected accusations it was trying to influence the elections, saying that Iraqis have made it clear they won't take orders from abroad.
Bush said he does not think the elections will produce a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad (search).
"The future of Iraq depends upon Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character — the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging. You know, there's been longtime problems between Iran and Iraq, and I'm confident that Iraqi nationalism and Iraqi pride and the history of Iraq and traditions of Iraq will be the main focus of the new government, and reflect the new government," he said.
Bush also paid tribute to Iraqis and urged them to vote this weekend.
"I know thousands and thousands of Iraqis want to vote. I know they cherish the idea of being able to vote, and I hope as many Iraqis vote as possible," he said.
He said the elections presented Iraqis with a "historic opportunity."
"I'm proud of the country. I'm proud of the citizens, and look forward to the day when Iraq is democratic and free, with Iraqi traditions and Iraqi customs."
He also singled out Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim community.
"I hope all the Sunnis vote," Bush added.
Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the polls, arguing they cannot be free and fair due to persistent violence in Iraq and the U.S. military presence.
The Sunni minority wielded great influence under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Many insurgents are Sunnis.
Bush expressed sorrow for the loss of life in Wednesday's crash of U.S. Marine transport helicopter in which 31 U.S. troops died.
"Today a tragic helicopter accident is a reminder of the risks inherent in military operations," the president said. "But I am convinced we're doing the right thing by helping Iraq become a free country, because a free Iraq will have long-term effects in the world."
Views among Iraqi Shiites toward Iran range from hate to devotion. Despite 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people being Shiite, many harbor resentment toward Iran over the bloody 1980-88 war between the countries in which 1 million people died. Many Iraqis also accuse Iran of sponsoring this country's rampant insurgency.
But many Iraqi Shiites, who were suppressed under Saddam's three-decade rule, also look to Iran's Shiite establishment for religious guidance.