CAIRO, Egypt – President Hosni Mubarak (search) expressed hope Saturday that Iraq's elections will be held on schedule but said all Iraqis need to participate to avoid further violence in the war-ravaged state.
However, Mubarak, this country's sole ruler since 1981, sidestepped questions on whether he would support constitutional changes to loosen his own grip on power.
His comments, made during an unprecedented telephone call to a popular talk show, come at a time of great political change in the Middle East, with Palestinian presidential polls on Sunday, Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 and a referendum on the Egyptian presidency in September.
"I hope the (Iraqi) elections are held on time, but with the participation of all (political) forces and (religious) sects," he said. "The fear is if one sect stays behind, this will lead to an escalation of violence and terrorism and we will remain in a vicious circle of killing and destruction."
Shiite Muslims (search), who account for 60 percent of Iraq's population, are expected to dominate the elections. Influential Sunni clerics and political leaders are urging a boycott and postponement because of Iraq's chaotic security situation, but American and Iraqi officials repeatedly have insisted the vote be held without delay.
Mubarak has long called for post-war Iraq to be given the opportunity to decide its own political fate free from foreign occupation, but his remarks Saturday appeared to be the first time he has made clear his desire for this month's vote to go ahead on time.
"I see it is necessary, if possible, to hold the elections on time so that there is no longer a temporary government or temporary president," Mubarak said. "So that the (rulers) are seen as genuine and they can discuss the constitution."
Egypt, which is home to one of the Sunni world's leading religious institutions, Al-Azhar University (search), is seen as having considerable influence within some sectors of Iraq's Sunni community.
Iraq's defense minister and a delegation representing the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), recently traveled to Cairo on separate trips for talks with Egyptian officials on various issues, including the upcoming elections. But Egypt's foreign minister has played down suggestions that Cairo is trying to persuade Sunnis to back the polls.
On the Palestinian elections to replace Yasser Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, Mubarak said the Palestinians need "a calm, rational leader who rules with his brains and is not impulsive."
Mubarak has previously urged voters to vote for front-runner Mahmoud Abbas.
The 76-year-old Egyptian president, who has won four previous presidential referendums as the sole candidate offered to voters, ignored a question on opposition calls for a constitutional amendment to allow open elections in his country.
"This is a democracy. I hope a 100 (presidential candidates) nominate themselves. I will not get mad," he said without addressing the need to change the constitution to allow for opponents to stand against him.
Mubarak, who heads the ruling National Democratic Party, which dominates the parliament, said power is not something he "coveted."
"Whoever takes the seat of power ruins his health, his time and his nerves. He has no private life," Mubarak complained. "The president of Egypt is a detainee."
Mubarak said ballot boxes, not the president, decides the country's political future.
Parliamentary elections also are set for later this year, but such votes are regularly marred by vote rigging and fraud and often feature landslide victories for Mubarak's party.
Mubarak has not announced whether he will stand for president again and he has not appointed a vice president since succeeding Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981.
Speculation has been rife that Mubarak is grooming his son, Gamal, to one day replace him by appointing him to powerful positions within his party. But both men have repeatedly rejected the notion.
Mubarak played down the recent Coptic Christian-Muslim strife in his country, describing various incidents as "individual cases that happen in any country."
Last month, authorities detained 34 young Copts for up to a month following violent protests at a Cairo cathedral over reports the wife of a Coptic priest had been kidnapped in a bid to force her to convert to Islam. She later returned to the church and said she would remain a Copt.