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Hamas strength seen in State Department poll

WASHINGTON—A State Department-commissioned poll taken days before January's Palestinian elections warned U.S. policymakers that the militant Islamic group Hamas was in a position to win.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after the election that they had no advance indication of a major Hamas triumph.

The poll found that Hamas had been gaining support in previous months and was running neck-and-neck with the secular Fatah party—30 percent vs. 32 percent—among likely voters. It was distributed within the State Department on Jan. 19, six days before the elections.

The poll found that corruption in the Palestinian Authority was the leading issue among Palestinians, and that 52 percent believed that Hamas was more qualified to clean it up, compared with 35 percent who put their faith in Fatah, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' moderate faction.

Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, won a landslide victory, throwing American policy into confusion because the Bush administration had anticipated a Fatah win.

"I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by its very strong showing," Rice said on Jan. 29 as she flew to London for talks on the election results with her counterparts from the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. "I think what was probably underestimated was the depth of resentment of the last, really, decade of corruption and the old guard."

Rice said that she had directed State Department officials to determine "why nobody saw it coming ... because it does say something about perhaps not having had a good enough pulse on the Palestinian population."

On Friday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, "I don't think the poll and the secretary's remarks are in conflict. She didn't say we were surprised that they won.

"I think what took people by surprise was the margin of victory," Ereli said. "Nobody foresaw that huge a sweep."

The survey of 1,000 Palestinians ages 18 and over, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, was conducted Jan. 13-15 by a local organization with questions written by the Office of Research, part of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR.

The poll was obtained by the Project on Government Secrecy, a program run by the Federation of American Scientists, a policy research group, which provided it to Knight Ridder.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy, said that while the poll didn't predict Hamas' big win, it clearly showed a trend toward victory for the Islamic militants.

"Either Secretary Rice was being disingenuous or else her department has a serious information-sharing problem, because INR could not have done a much better job of assessing the Palestinian election than they did," said Aftergood. "No one else did a better job than INR. So to profess surprise of the outcome is incomprehensible.

"This is secrecy squared," he continued. "It's one thing to keep secrets from the public. But when the bureaucracy is keeping secrets from itself, policy is compromised."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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