- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti declared his candidacy for president yesterday, a stunning last-minute reversal that shook up Palestinian politics ahead of the Jan. 9 vote for Yasser Arafat’s replacement.

Adding to the uncertainty, the militant group Hamas said it would boycott the election. It was the first sign of open divisions between the interim Palestinian leadership and the Islamist opposition group since Mr. Arafat’s death on Nov. 11.

The moves injected drama into what has been a smooth transition of power. Before yesterday, Mahmoud Abbas had managed to win pledges of unity — if not outright support — from the disparate Palestinian factions and seemed to be a shoo-in to win the presidency.

The fiery, charismatic Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his role in deadly attacks, is far more popular among young Palestinians than the staid Mr. Abbas.

Last week, Barghouti sent a message from his prison cell saying he would not pursue the presidency for the sake of unity in the ruling Fatah movement. But yesterday, he abruptly changed his mind.

Cheered by supporters who shouted, “With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, Marwan,” Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, dropped off his registration documents at the Palestinian election headquarters ahead of a midnight deadline.

“I officially registered Marwan,” she told reporters.

Earlier, the campaign paid a $3,000 deposit, associates said.

Mr. Abbas has been nominated as Fatah’s presidential candidate, so Barghouti must run as an independent. But as a leading Fatah member, he likely would undermine Mr. Abbas’ prospects.

Barghouti, 45, represents the younger generation of Fatah members who grew up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mr. Abbas, 69, comes from the “old guard” of leaders who returned from exile with Mr. Arafat a decade ago.

Israel arrested Barghouti in 2002, accusing him of funneling money to militants and being involved in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. He was convicted of attacks leading to five deaths.

Although Mr. Abbas and Barghouti both favor a negotiated settlement with Israel, an election victory for Barghouti would complicate matters. Israel quietly has embraced Mr. Abbas, whom it considers a pragmatist, and has ruled out freeing Barghouti.

However, because of his popularity, it might be easier for Barghouti to make the concessions needed to reach a peace deal with Israel.

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