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Bush to seek funds for Abbas security forces

WASHINGTON—President Bush plans to ask Congress to provide $83 million for security forces controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to bolster him, curb the Islamic group Hamas and revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The move is part of a renewed effort by the White House and allies in the Middle East to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which some believe is critical to improving the situation in Iraq.

Ensuring that the funds go to forces loyal to Abbas is important because, by law, no U.S. assistance can go to Hamas, a militant Islamic group that controls the Palestinian parliament and cabinet and is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas are bitter rivals, and their members have clashed repeatedly in street battles that Palestinians fear could escalate into civil war.

"Clearly, our primary concern is to make sure that none of these funds in any way are able to be used by Hamas or benefit a Hamas-led government," State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Friday. "So we're being very careful and scrupulous in building in those safeguards to make sure that that doesn't happen."

McCormack said that the funds are intended to help Abbas and "build up those responsible security forces to help provide security in Gaza, in the West Bank."

Bush's pending request is the latest component in a drive to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process and get the Israelis and Palestinians back on the so-called Road Map plan, a series of confidence-building measures that could lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

On Dec. 22, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas and agreed to release $100 million in taxes and duties that Israel had been withholding from the Palestinians for months.

The next day, two Bush administration representatives told Congress that the administration wanted to spend $83 million that had been earmarked for economic support for the West Bank and Gaza on non-lethal supplies and training for Palestinian civil security forces under Abbas.

Days later, Egypt sent a large shipment of weapons to Abbas' sympathizers in the Gaza Strip. Israel allowed the shipment of 2,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and 2 million bullets to pass through its territory.

Abbas also met with Jordan's King Abdullah II last month to discuss peace talks with Israel.

The United States, Europe and Israel cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority government last year after Hamas won parliamentary elections, and said that the financial boycott would continue until Hamas accepts Israel's right to exist.

The move has paralyzed the Palestinian government, whose employees, including Abbas' security forces, have since been paid only sporadically.

Last month, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group urged the Bush administration to make a more aggressive effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying its solution was key to ending the escalating violence in Iraq.

The White House generally has dismissed the study group's recommendations.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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