- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

12:48 p.m.

CAIRO — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appealed today for an end to fighting among Palestinian factions and said she is looking for ways to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his standoff with Hamas radicals who control part of the Palestinian government.

“Innocent Palestinians are caught in the crossfire, and we call on all parties to stop,” Miss Rice said of the worst Palestinian violence since March. “The Palestinians deserve calm.”

New gun battles erupted last night between Fatah gunmen and Hamas militiamen in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing two persons and wounding 14 a day after a deadly explosion of internal violence paralyzed the Gaza Strip.

Miss Rice spoke during a press conference in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, with her Saudi counterpart as she began a Mideast tour intended to shore up Mr. Abbas, as well as the secular Arab governments in Lebanon and Iraq.

She later flew to the Egyptian capital, where she held a private meeting with the country’s chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman. She also met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Mr. Aboul Gheit told reporters that they discussed how the U.S. could contribute to efforts to urge the U.N. Security Council and the Quartet of Mideast mediators to move the peace process forward and broker a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mr. Abbas.

While in Cairo, Miss Rice planned to meet with eight Arab allies in hope of reviving the peace process and making headway on other regional issues.

During that session, the ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt and Jordan are expected to coordinate efforts to buttress Mr. Abbas’ stature and stem Iran’s growing influence.

Miss Rice’s trip comes as Arab countries in recent weeks have halted dealings with Hamas. They want it to join a unity government that supports a 2002 Arab League plan that would offer peace to Israel in exchange for land, and they’ve even started funneling aid through Mr. Abbas, Arab diplomats say.

Egypt, a longtime mediator among Palestinian factions and between Israel and the Palestinians, appears to be losing its patience with Hamas.

Hamas trounced Mr. Abbas’ secular political movement in January elections but has been unable to govern effectively because of the power split with Mr. Abbas and a cutoff of Western and most other international aid after the Hamas victory. The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terror group and refuse to deal with it unless it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by agreements struck by the previous Palestinian leadership.

Miss Rice would not comment on whether the Hamas government is close to collapse or to capitulation, but the Bush administration and Israel are increasingly convinced Hamas eventually will crumble and look to Mr. Abbas to capitalize.

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