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Arafat says he will name prime minister

Arafat has been under pressure to appoint a prime minister.
Arafat has been under pressure to appoint a prime minister.

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Bowing to international pressure, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced Friday he will appoint a prime minister to serve under him as head of the Palestinian Authority government.

Arafat will convene a Palestinian legislative council meeting in the next few days to seek approval for and name the new prime minister.

The Palestinian Authority president has long resisted appointing a prime minister, concerned it could weaken him politically. But Arafat is facing mounting international pressure from United Nations, Russian and European Union diplomats to make a move before any U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

Arafat's announcement was the result of a meeting with envoys from the United Nations, Russia and the European Union on Friday morning at his Ramallah compound.

U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen called the move a "first step" toward establishing peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

"What we now hope will happen shortly is that the Palestinian equivalent of a parliament, their council, will approve a prime minister which is both credible and which is empowered," he said. "This is a necessity in order to get the parties back to the table again."

Arafat did not elaborate what powers the prime minister would have and whether those powers will be shared with him, but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the appointee would report directly to Arafat.

Erakat also called on Israel and the international community to take the next step toward a road map toward a Palestinian state.

"Today we have done our part, now it's up to [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon, and also to the quartet and above all to the American side, to adopt, declare and begin the process of implementing the road map," he said.

Next week, members of the so-called quartet on the Middle East, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, are expected to meet in London.

In a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January, just days before Blair's meeting in Washington with President Bush, Arafat accepted the quartet's "road map" to a Palestinian state in principle, Erakat said.

The Palestinian adviser would not reveal any more about that letter.

The road map calls for Arafat to make a series of reforms, including naming a prime minister.

Arafat is facing pressure not just to appoint a prime minister, but to name a four-person council that would pursue reforms and establish

a negotiating posture with the Israelis, diplomats said.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the objective of the new coalition government he is in the process of forming would be to remove the Palestinian "terrorist leadership." He stopped short of saying he would expel Arafat.

"The new government would have to complete the campaign against terror, remove the terrorist leadership and create conditions for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership with which it will be possible to make real peace," Sharon said, after being formally asked by Israel's President Moshe Katsav to form a new government.

Sharon's Likud party won a majority of the seats in the Knesset in the January 28 election.

U.S. officials are not actively pushing the road map, accepting Israel's view that it should be on hold until Sharon forms his new government. Many diplomats believe the United States is also holding off until after any military campaign in Iraq.

-- CNN Correspondents Kelly Wallace, Jerrold Kessel and Avivit Dalgoshen contributed to this report.

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