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Militant Islamic terrorist groups winning elections in Middle East

WASHINGTON—Elections are proceeding in many places across the Arab world, just as President Bush and his advisers had hoped. But there's a hitch: Sometimes militant Islamic terrorists are winning.

Two violent groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, which are opposed to the United States and Israel, have scored significant successes in recent polls.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday postponed parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for July 17, a move widely interpreted as a concession that Hamas would have trounced his Fatah faction.

That leaves the Bush administration with a dilemma as it pushes for democracy across the Middle East. Islamist parties—some peaceful, some violent—have deep local roots, partly as a result of the social services often provided by groups that also conduct terrorist attacks.

The White House has yet to outline a clear policy.

Spokesmen have reiterated the United States' refusal to deal with Hamas and Lebanese-based Hezbollah, both of which are designated as terrorist organizations. But there also have been hints that Washington might be willing to engage group members who win legitimate elections.

"This is an issue they've been struggling with," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, an expert on Arab reform at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a moderate to liberal policy organization.

Hamas presents a particularly vexing problem, Wittes said, because it opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Hamas won 77 out of 118 council seats in municipal elections in the Gaza Strip in January, and it appears certain to play a major role in Gaza after Israel's scheduled withdrawal begins in mid-August.

Bush's spokesmen occasionally have suggested the president believes the ballot box can redeem even terrorist groups.

"If you look back at the previous Palestinian elections, the people that were elected, while they might have been members of Hamas, they were business professionals, they were people that ran on talking about improving the quality of life for the Palestinian people and addressing their economic needs and addressing other needs that are important to them, not terrorists," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in April.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday reiterated the United States' refusal to deal with Hamas, however.

"With respect to Hamas, our position is unchanged and it's well known. It is designated as a terrorist organization, and we do not have dialogue with designated terrorist organizations," he said.

McCormack didn't say whether Washington would deal with individual politicians affiliated with the group.

There are legal prohibitions against dealing with terrorist organizations. Even if the White House moved to get around them, it would face fierce opposition in Congress.

Yet refusing to deal with members of Hamas or Hezbollah, which dominated elections in southern Lebanon on Sunday, could limit America's ability to influence events.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said this week that British diplomats had met twice with Hamas-affiliated politicians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, prompting a furious response from Israel. Straw later ruled out contacts with the group until it renounces violence, which it has refused to do.

More broadly, Islamist groups such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which renounces violence, are the most potent political opposition force in many countries.

In a bipartisan report released Wednesday, the Council on Foreign Relations backed Bush's push for democracy in the Arab world—it's his No. 1 foreign policy priority—while acknowledging that it entails "inherent risks."

"For better or worse, Islamist movements and political parties are likely to play a prominent role in a more democratic Middle East," the report said. While the United States "must remain vigilant" in opposing terrorist groups, "it should not allow Middle Eastern leaders to use national security as an excuse to suppress nonviolent Islamist organizations," it said.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who co-chaired the council's task force, said it would be a mistake for the United States to begin dealing with individual members of terrorist groups who have won local offices.

But she acknowledged that Hamas and Hezbollah excel at "constituent services" that make them popular and said the United States should urge political parties it works with to emulate that strategy.

Hezbollah, a Shiite militia allied with Iran that's responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East, also poses a challenge for Bush.

Its strong showing in elections Sunday, the second of four rounds, gives it an opportunity to participate in Lebanon's government for the first time. That's not the outcome the United States hoped for when it and France pressured Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and end its political meddling.

Bush could face a choice over providing aid to the new Lebanese government or demanding that it first disarm Hezbollah.

But Hezbollah, buoyed by the election results, seems less willing than ever to disarm.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly predicted that Arab electorates wouldn't vote backers of violence into national governments.

After Abbas postponed the Palestinian parliamentary elections, she told an interviewer: "I really do believe that the candidates that show the Palestinian people a better future are the candidates that are going to be elected. And a better future does not mean strapping suicide bombs onto yourself or to your children and having them blow up innocent people."

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Hamas ("Islamic Resistance Movement"): Since 1987, Hamas has pursued the creation of an Islamic state in place of Israel.

Its terrorist wing has supported attacks on Israeli targets. Supported by Iran and Syria, Hamas has provided Palestinians with a social services network including hospitals, schools, orphanages and soup kitchens.

Hamas is the main Palestinian political challenge to the Palestinian Authority. It hasn't renounced violence.

Hezbollah ("Party of God"): Begun in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, this Lebanon-based militia is made up of radical Shiite Muslim groups and is heavily supported by Iran.

It has claimed responsibility for many terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

Its goal is to create an Islamic state in Lebanon. Hezbollah provides schools, health care and other services for Lebanese Shiites. It has candidates in Lebanon's parliamentary elections.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations

(Compiled by researcher Tish Wells)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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