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Middle East: Israeli Forces Begin Partial Withdrawal, U.S. Grows More Impatient

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell begins his mission to the Middle East, Israeli forces have completed a withdrawal from two West Banks towns, while reportedly opening a new offensive in the southern town of Dura. The White House calls the withdrawals a "start," but U.S. President George W. Bush is becoming increasingly insistent that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdraw his troops from all Palestinian territories. And Bush's allies are backing his call.

Washington, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush first asked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 4 April to begin withdrawing the troops and tanks that had entered the West Bank and Gaza nearly a week earlier in an effort to root out those responsible for the persistent suicide bombings that have targeted Israeli civilians.

But the troops stayed where they were, and even moved deeper into West Bank territory. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, remains hemmed in at his compound in Ramallah.

Bush has sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region in an effort to restore the Middle East peace process. It is widely believed that Bush expects Israeli troops to have withdrawn by the time Powell arrives in Jerusalem later this week.

The Israeli military said today it has completed a withdrawal from the West Bank towns of Qalqilya and Tulkarm. The White House calls the withdrawals a "start," while Powell says the moves are encouraging, but not enough. He said he hopes they are the start of further withdrawals.

There are reports, however, that Israeli troops have now entered a new area, the southern West Bank town of Dura. And there are no indications that Israeli forces are pulling back from any other areas of the West Bank.

Yesterday, addressing the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Sharon said the troops would stay no longer than they have to in order to accomplish their mission. But he stressed that they would not leave a moment earlier than that. And he blamed Arafat that Palestinian militants are still at large. "Arafat has established in the territories under his control a regime of terror that, in an organized and official manner, trains terrorists; finances, equips, and arms them; and then sends them to murderous operations, murderous activities throughout Israel."

Hours afterward, Bush was asked about the problem during a visit to Knoxville, a city in the southern U.S. state of Tennessee. "I expect there to be withdrawal [of Israeli forces from Palestinian territory] without delay. And I also meant what I said to the Arab world, that in order for there to be peace, nations must stand up, leaders must stand up, and condemn terrorism and terrorist activity."

Powell spoke less bluntly during a brief stay in Agadir, Morocco, one of the stops he made to consult with Arab and European leaders en route to Jerusalem. "We understand that Israel has the right to self-defense, but Israel also has to take into account the implications of its actions in a broader context. The strategic problems that are created by this continuing operation are rather significant and severe, when you see what's happening throughout the rest of the Middle East, and we hope that [Israeli] Prime Minister Sharon and his colleagues are taking all of this into account."

Powell left Washington Sunday night. After Morocco, he is expected to visit Egypt, Spain, and Jordan to consult with various Arab and European leaders before arriving in Jerusalem.

The secretary's meetings with European officials may be as important to the success of his mission as the sessions with Arab leaders. European officials say they are losing patience with Sharon, though they condemn the suicide bombings committed by Palestinians. Yesterday, European Commission President Romano Prodi said at EU headquarters in Brussels: "We understand and respect the right of the Israeli people to live in peace and the duty of the armored force to defend the safety of the population. But the time has come for Israelis and Palestinians to break away from the cycle of violence, revenge and retaliation. Violence can only create more violence. It can never bring peace."

And even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally and a strong supporter of Israel, made it clear during a visit to Prague yesterday that he believes Sharon has reached the limit of an acceptable response to terrorism. "I've constantly said that I understand entirely why Israel feels so very strongly about taking action against those committing terrorist acts. When your people are being blown up in cafes and bars and even at religious events, then public opinion in Israel will be very strong. But my point continually is that there are now innocent people dying also on the Palestinian side. What is important is that we take the measures necessary to try [to] restore some confidence in a political process because the only answer to this ultimately is not just military, it's political."

Sharon's orders for the incursions into the Palestinian territories have enraged Muslims throughout the world. Powell acknowledged that the occupation has had a "significant and severe" impact, to the point where it even improved the standing of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq who invaded neighboring Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War a decade ago.

During its meeting last weekend in Beirut, the Arab League said it opposes any military attack on any Arab state, particularly Iraq. Yesterday, the Arab world applauded Saddam's decision to cut off oil exports for 30 days -- or until the Israeli troops withdraw -- to show his solidarity with the Palestinians. "In their meeting, on 8 April 2002, they declared, in the name of the faithful, honest, Mujahid, noble, Iraqi people, the complete stoppage of oil exporting."

In the West, Saddam's decision evoked memories of the Arab oil boycotts of three decades ago, which badly hurt the world economy through a rare combination of slow growth and inflation due to high energy prices. However, Saddam's action is not expected to have a significant impact because no major oil producers are expected to follow Iraq's lead.

While Powell is in Jerusalem, he is scheduled to meet with Sharon to deliver Bush's request for withdrawal personally. The U.S. secretary of state says he also hopes to meet with Arafat. But on Sunday, Powell said he will meet with the Palestinian leader "if circumstances permit." And so far, those circumstances have become no clearer.