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Top Bush official: Arafat supports terror

Arafat and Bush
Arafat responded to Bush's speech by saying the Palestinians "will choose their own leaders."  

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush took a "more direct line" against Yasser Arafat in his Middle East speech after learning the Palestinian leader was "continuing to support" terror groups, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

The official declined to offer specifics on what evidence the administration had about Arafat's role.

"We feel very confident in our sense that [Arafat] was ... not just failing to discourage [terror groups] from doing bad stuff, but he was continuing to support them and continuing to make it possible to do bad things," said this official.

The official said that information, combined with word that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for one of last week's deadly suicide bombings, led the president to take a "more direct line" in his speech Monday, in which he called for new Palestinian leadership.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has carried out numerous attacks against military targets and civilians in Israel and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. In March 2002, the U.S. State Department designated it as a foreign terrorist organization.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he believes there "is debate within the Palestinian movement now as to the nature of the leadership they've been receiving." He said he had delivered a tough message in person to Arafat 10 weeks ago and the president reinforced that message.

"There is no way for him to misunderstand the message that the president gave yesterday and the message I gave to him some 10 weeks earlier," Powell said.

Arafat: Palestinians will choose own leaders

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In addition to his call for new Palestinian leadership, Bush said Israel should withdraw from Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza and stop the construction of Jewish settlements in the territories.

"The president believes very strongly that if the parties want to find a way out of the violence, they need to heed his call," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Arafat, in his first public comments since Bush's speech, responded by saying the Palestinians "will choose their own leaders."

Speaking with reporters in Washington Tuesday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, described the idea of a leadership change as "helpful."

But, he said, "I am concerned about what happens if we don't see a regime change. I would hate to see us become unengaged simply because we're waiting for some change in the Palestinian Authority. It is important for us to have a contingent plan available if Mr. Arafat refuses to leave."

Those concerns were echoed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. D-South Dakota. Daschle said he had spoken with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and that she gave no indication the administration had a contingency plan.

Daschle supported the idea of a new Palestinian leadership, saying it would be "catalytic in bringing about a peaceful resolution and negotiations to bring about that resolution."

Other Arab leaders

One key question for the Bush administration is whether Arab leaders would support Bush's call for new Palestinian leaders.

A senior official said so far Arab leaders "are certainly not saying they can't live with" Bush's requirement that Arafat needs to go.

Bush has made his disappointment with Arafat clear to Arab leaders, the official said, noting that the leaders understood the need for a "de-evolution of authority away from Arafat."

The official said each party was focusing on the parts of the president's plan they like and less on the parts "that might be a bit burdensome."

For example, the official said, the Israelis were highlighting the call for leadership change, and the Palestinians and other Arabs were highlighting the call for a creation of a Palestinian state, possibly within three years, something King Abdullah of Jordan was calling for.

The senior aide said the administration would be focused on making sure the "international quartet" -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, as well as Arab states -- support the president's plan.

"It is very important to take steps to make sure that [Arab leaders] are with us," the official said.

Other challenges for the Bush team include deciding whether the administration should have any official contact with Arafat, and if so, at what level, the official said. There is also the need to identify other Palestinians the administration can deal with.

"We want to deal with as broad a range" of Palestinians leaders as possible, the official said.

An international conference on the Middle East "is still on the table," the official said, but noted that the focus now is on Powell working with Mideast and other international leaders to find the "precise mechanism" to move forward.

The official said Powell is "thinking about a trip" to the region "in the near future" but said nothing was scheduled.




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