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Middle East: Bush Says Mideast Mission A Success

The White House is trying its best to portray Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent Middle East peace mission as a success. But try as it may, America's reputation in the Arab world appears to have been hit hard by Powell's failure to achieve his main goals: a cease-fire and Israeli withdrawal from recently occupied West Bank areas.

Washington, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush said he is satisfied with America's peace bid in the Mideast and Israel's gradual pullback from West Bank areas. But Washington's reputation in the region appears to have reached a new low.

As Bush dubbed Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent Mideast peace mission a success, Arab leaders and media on Thursday urged Washington to put more pressure on Israel and criticized Powell's trip as a failure and a cheap public-relations bid to polish its tarnished image in the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, the international community on Thursday demanded a complete investigation into an alleged massacre at the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin, one of the most controversial actions in Israel's assault on the West Bank.

At the White House on Thursday, Bush said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must continue his withdrawal from areas Israel occupied on 29 March after a string of Palestinian suicide attacks.

Powell left the Middle East on Wednesday after a 10-day trip aimed at winning a cease-fire and an immediate Israeli withdrawal. He secured neither, but said Sharon gave him a timetable for pulling back Israeli troops from most areas within a week, except the cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Bush, flanked by Powell, emphasized that Powell had made progress in his trip but could not perform a miracle. It was a far cry from the strong language he used on 4 April, when he demanded a full and swift pullback of Israeli forces.

"This is a part of the world where killing has been going on for a long, long time. And one trip by the secretary of state is not going to prevent that from happening. But one trip by the secretary of state laid out the framework and the path to achieve peace," Bush said.

For his part, Powell said he has adopted a three-pronged approach to the crisis based on improving the security situation, accelerating negotiations aimed at complete political settlement, and providing humanitarian and economic assistance to devastated Palestinian areas.

Powell said he was hopeful that peace talks could start once all Israeli forces had departed from the recently occupied cities and towns. "I talked about what the sides have to do with respect to restoring a sense of security so the two peoples can have confidence in one another and begin negotiations once again. So we put down a security element to our strategy. And we made it clear to the leaders in the region that we wanted to move forward with negotiations as early as possible, and looking at different ways to do that once security has been established."

The Israeli Army began to pull out of some areas on Thursday, including Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp. But Sharon said he will not pull troops out of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains encircled in his devastated headquarters, or from Bethlehem until a 19-day standoff ends between Palestinian militants inside the Church of the Nativity and Israeli forces.

So far, attempts at mediation have failed. Yet analysts say ending the conflict at the church, which is built at what Christians believe is the birth site of Jesus, will be vital to achieve any kind of cease-fire.

Bush told reporters that all parties in the region must act responsibly to achieve peace, but singled out Arafat, saying he must act on his condemnation of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians.

"The Palestinian Authority must act on its condemnation of terror. The Israelis are withdrawing from Jenin and Nablus and they must continue their withdrawals. And neighbors in the region must condemn terror, cut off funding for terror, and must make it clear that people who suicide-bomb are not martyrs but kill and murder innocent people," Bush said.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders continued to press Israel for an immediate withdrawal. Jordan's King Abdullah made such a request in a phone call to Bush, and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, while visiting Moscow, said the entire Middle East is teetering on the abyss of disaster and urged more vigorous peace efforts.

The European Union, United Nations, Palestinian leaders, and Arab states, as well as international humanitarian organizations, also called Thursday for an immediate international inquiry into Israeli action against Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp.

The UN's Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, called Israel's incursion into the camp morally repugnant, a sad chapter in its history and counterproductive to the country's security needs. After touring the area, Larsen told Israeli Radio Thursday that the camp had been flattened and was permeated with the smell of rotting corpses.

Witnesses reported seeing Israeli tanks and soldiers leaving the camp Thursday, but said snipers stayed in areas where Palestinians fought Israeli troops.

Israel says the Jenin operation was necessary to quell a hotbed of militants and prevent scores of suicide attacks on civilians. Some 23 Israeli soldiers reportedly died in fighting there. But Palestinians have called the attack a war crime.

Palestinians began combing through the rubble looking for bodies of loved ones on Thursday. Although an exact tally has yet to be made, Muhammed Abu Ghali, director of Jenin hospital, told Reuters news agency that he could confirm 36 dead and expected the toll might be anywhere between 200 and 400.

Israel says those numbers are exaggerated and blames Palestinian fighters for the bloodshed, saying they also booby-trapped themselves and buildings.

Powell says he will return to the region, in a sign the Bush administration is committed to staying engaged in a conflict it had largely avoided since taking office in January 2001.

Bush sought to emphasize that his administration is taking a balanced approach to the conflict, despite widespread perceptions that Washington favors Israel and intended to use Powell's trip partly to garner Arab support for a U.S.-led effort to topple President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

"The secretary's trip made it clear that our nation thinks beyond the short term, that we're serious when we talk about two states living side by side, and that we are laying the foundations of peace," Bush said.

Arab criticism of Washington's peace efforts has been conspicuous since Powell left Israel on Wednesday. President Hosni Mubarak declined to meet with Powell when he stopped in Cairo on his way home, sending his foreign minister instead.

And on Thursday, Arab media from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf criticized the secretary of state's visit, saying that by failing to get an immediate Israeli withdrawal he gave Sharon a green light to proceed with -- in the words of Morocco's "Al-Alam" daily -- "a genocide of the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed on Thursday for the deployment of an international armed force in Palestinian areas to end the violence. His call met with Israeli opposition and faces reluctance from Washington, which has voiced support for third-party monitoring -- presumably by American forces -- but not a multinational peacekeeping unit.