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Embattled Abbas Steps Down

by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi    Reuters

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Sept. 6) - Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas submitted his resignation on Saturday in a power struggle with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian president was considering the offer, a presidential aide said.

The departure of the moderate Abbas could spell the end of a U.S.-backed plan for peace with Israel and plunge the region into a new spasm of violence.

It was not clear whether Arafat would accept the resignation of Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen. Arafat wants to limit Abbas's powers but also wants to avoid provoking Israel into trying to expel him if he ousts his reformist premier.

''President Arafat is still studying Abu Mazen's resignation,'' Palestinian national security adviser Jibril al-Rajoub told reporters. Palestinian officials had earlier said Arafat had accepted Abbas's resignation letter.

The United States, which backs Abbas and no longer deals with Arafat, said it did not know whether Abbas had quit or Arafat had accepted. ''We are not certain that this is true and that this is the end of it,'' a U.S. official said in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said in a statement that Israel would not accept control of the Palestinian Authority being returned to Arafat, whom it has sought to sideline.

The peace plan, known as the ''road map,'' has already been seriously damaged by the collapse of a truce declared by Palestinian militants and a relentless Israeli military campaign to kill or capture their leaders.

Abbas, 68, was appointed by Arafat only four months ago under international pressure for reforms of the Palestinian Authority and an end to almost three years of Palestinian-Israeli bloodshed.

But Arafat has tried to limit Abbas's powers. Their struggle focused on control of the security forces, which is vital to the road map and Palestinian efforts to rein in militants. Arafat and Abbas have resisted a crackdown, fearing a civil war.


The European Union said it was extremely concerned by Abbas's resignation.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told a meeting of EU foreign ministers that the bloc was ''deeply worried by the serious risk of dangerous instability at the head of the Palestinian executive.''

Abbas had told members of parliament on Thursday to sack him if they would not back him in his bid to obtain more authority from Arafat to carry out democratic reforms and subdue the militant factions hostile to negotiated peace with Israel.

Both steps, along with Israeli withdrawals from occupied territory, are mandated by the road map.

A senior Palestinian official told Reuters: ''Abbas's problems (in part stem from) the continuation of Israeli incursions and assassinations. In addition to that the American administration has done little to make Israel comply with the road map.''

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell promised that the United States would work harder on peace between Israelis and Palestinians and backed Abbas against Arafat.

''Unfortunately Chairman Yasser Arafat has not been playing a helpful role. He has not been an interlocutor for peace over the years. His actions do not move the parties farther down the road to peace,'' Powell said in a speech.

A senior Palestinian official said an intimidating demonstration against Abbas outside parliament on Thursday by members of a militant faction loyal to Arafat had been one factor in the premier's decision to quit.

Arafat, 74, has led the Palestinian independence movement since the 1960s.

Israel has been demanding Abbas disarm the militant groups and says the ceasefire, which they declared on June 29, disintegrated because of a suicide bombing by Hamas on August 19 that killed 22 people.

Palestinian officials and militants blamed the lurch backward into violence on Israeli army raids on militants. Israel has killed 11 Hamas men and four civilian bystanders in helicopter missile strikes in Gaza since August 21.

Palestinian officials say Arafat's key motive is to stay in power and show the world he is not irrelevant despite U.S. and Israeli attempts to sideline him over accusations, which he denies, that he encourages violence. 


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