Saturday, November 13, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising jailed by Israel but perhaps the strongest candidate to oust Yasser Arafat’s old guard of politicians, plans to run in upcoming presidential elections, a person close to him said yesterday.

The candidacy of Mr. Barghouti, who supports violence but says he wants peace with Israel, could shake up the calcified world of Palestinian politics. By law, elections are to be held by Jan. 9, or within 60 days of Mr. Arafat’s death on Thursday

Many believe the popular Mr. Barghouti is the only leader capable of unifying squabbling Palestinian factions, reining in militants and possibly restarting peace efforts with Israel.

Israel, however, is determined not to free Mr. Barghouti, who is serving multiple life terms for his role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.

In Washington yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he hoped to meet Palestinian leaders soon as part of a harder U.S. push for peace in the region following Mr. Arafat’s death.

Mr. Powell will travel to Egypt for a Nov. 22-23 conference and could meet there with the current and former Palestinian prime ministers, Ahmed Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, or visit them in the Palestinian territories, a State Department official said.

Many Palestinians believe Mr. Barghouti represents the best hope for Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement to beat down a challenge by the increasingly popular hard-line Islamic militant group Hamas, which is considering running a candidate.

“When he takes that decision [to run], we will be near him and we will support him,” said Ahmed Ghneim, a senior Fatah leader and another member of the younger guard. “I think he has the best chances of anybody in the movement to win the elections.”

Mr. Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, said she was unaware of her husband’s plans. But his brother, Hisham, said: “His people around him, from the Fatah and Tanzim [Fatah rank-and-file], want him, and if they want him, he is looking to be president.”

Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh was sworn in as the caretaker leader of the Palestinian Authority after Mr. Arafat’s death.

Though some officials have talked of amending the law to allow parliament to choose the new leader, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said yesterday that elections would be held by Jan. 9. Mr. Fattouh is to meet today with elections officials to decide whether to hold the election Jan. 7 or Jan. 9, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Ammar Dweik, deputy chairman of the Palestinian election commission, said the Palestinians were ready to hold their first presidential election since 1996, noting that a voter registration drive was recently completed.

“There is a political will to conduct the elections,” he said. “We are ready technically. All we need is a decree to set a date.”

Another question is whether Hamas will field a candidate. Osama Hamdan, a Hamas leader in Beirut, Lebanon, said the group is deliberating whether to run a candidate. A senior Hamas official in Gaza, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the group’s leaders would meet soon and were considering the issue seriously.

Mr. Arafat’s death raised speculation that Israel might release Mr. Barghouti as a goodwill gesture, but Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom ruled that out.

Mr. Barghouti intends to run regardless, and will only bow out of the race if Fatah holds primaries and he loses, the person close to Mr. Barghouti said on the condition of anonymity.

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