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Egypt cautions against isolating Hamas

CAIRO, Egypt—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday began a campaign to forge a united front against Hamas, but Egypt broke ranks and said it opposed isolating the militant Islamist group that won control of the Palestinian government last month.

After meeting with Rice at the beginning of her three-nation Middle East tour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called for continued support for the Palestinian Authority as Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, forms a government.

"We should give Hamas time," said Gheit, who said an immediate aid cutoff or other punitive measures could hurt the Palestinian people.

He criticized Israel's decision Sunday to withhold $55 million in customs and tax dues from the cash-strapped Palestinian government, which Israel collects because it controls the borders.

The Egyptian's remarks underscore the challenge Rice faces as she tries to enlist Washington's Arab allies and to convince Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, that it faces isolation unless it renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist. The U.S. administration's leverage could prove to be limited if Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas that's profiting from high oil prices, were to provide more aid.

Hamas won parliamentary elections last month. On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah party, formally asked Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the likely new prime minister, to form a government. The process is expected to take five weeks.

Gheit didn't make it clear whether Egypt would support continuing aid to the Palestinians after Hamas takes power, but he suggested that Cairo would look to Abbas, who'll remain in power and who supports peace talks with Israel, as the symbol of the Palestinian people.

"We support the (Palestinian) Authority. And the Authority is in the service of the Palestinian people," he said at a news conference with Rice. "It is premature to judge the issue right now."

Rice, however, said there was "remarkable agreement" internationally over an approach to Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Washington, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, the "Quartet" that's tried to mediate for Mideast peace, insist that Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and abide by previous peace accords that the Palestinians have signed.

The United States says it will continue to provide humanitarian aid to the roughly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Without foreign support for its budget, however, the Palestinian Authority could collapse, engulfing the territories in chaos.

Rice's visit to Cairo was her first since last June, when she gave a major speech calling for democratic reforms in the Arab world and for Egypt to lead the way.

Since then, in elections in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, Islamist groups have gained ground, often overwhelming poorly organized secular political parties.

Egypt sentenced leading opposition politician Ayman Nour in December to five years in prison on forgery charges widely regarded to have been exaggerated or trumped up altogether.

Rice, at a feisty news conference Tuesday during which she and her Egyptian counterpart alternately joked and jousted, acknowledged setbacks. The secretary of state gave no sign that Washington would back off on pushing democracy, but seemed to acknowledge anew the challenges involved.

"We understand that it is a process to come to a political system that opens up, from being a closed system to one that is pluralistic, from one where there's one candidate to many," Rice said. "It takes time. We understand that."

Opposition parties in the Arab world, she suggested, need to do a better job of organizing and presenting their platforms to the public.

Asked about Nour's prison term, which he's appealing, she said: "Of course I'm disappointed that this has happened. It's one of the setbacks that I've mentioned. And we discussed it."

Gheit retorted that "due process has been applied" in Nour's case.

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

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