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Back me or sack me, says Abbas

Ramallah, Sept. 4 (Reuters): Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, struggling to win more power from Yasser Arafat and push a US-backed plan for peace with Israel, called on Palestinian lawmakers today to back him or sack him.

Pledging his commitment to salvage the battered West Asian “road map”, Abbas sought new security powers he sees as vital to diplomacy but which the Palestinian President has been reluctant to give him, officials said.

Abbas, 68, appointed by Arafat in April under international pressure but lacking his rival’s grass-roots popularity, stopped short of asking for a vote of confidence.

But as Arafat supporters staged anti-Abbas protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, parliamentary speaker Ahmed Korei said 15 out of the 85 lawmakers had filed a petition asking for such a vote. There was no immediate decision on the request.

Abbas’ removal by parliament, which is dominated by Arafat loyalists, could doom the US-brokered road map already under threat from fresh bloodshed and the cancellation of a ceasefire by Islamic militants.

Throwing down a gauntlet to lawmakers, Abbas said power-sharing problems needed to be urgently addressed and he was ready to leave office if he did not get his way.

“Either provide the possibility of strong support for carrying out (the mandate) or you can take it back,” Abbas said in a speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council while dozens of demonstrators stood outside chanting slogans against him.

Speaking in even tones, Abbas blamed Israel for a lack of progress in peace moves and said the US had done too little to restrain the Israeli army. “We...reiterate that we will continue our efforts to restore calm,” he said.

The power struggle between Abbas and Arafat has centred on Abbas’ demand, backed by the US, for control over the security forces who are crucial for reining in militants as required by the road map. Arafat has retained authority over most security services, drawing US and Israeli accusations that he is trying to undermine his reform-minded Prime Minister.

But a leaflet distributed by Fatah’s Ramallah branch accused Abbas’ administration of acting like a US and Israeli puppet and called for its removal.

In an apparent bid to defuse the crisis, lawmakers voted to hold a closed-door session on Saturday to hear Abbas’ account of his dispute with Arafat.

Underlining Abbas’ woes, a militant group affiliated with the Fatah faction, in which both he and Arafat hold leadership roles, was one of the groups that claimed joint responsibility for a West Bank ambush just before parliament met.

An Israeli army spokesperson said Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a patrol carrying out arrests in the West Bank town of Jenin, killing a soldier.

Abbas said he would seek a return to implementation of the road map, which outlines reciprocal steps to end almost three years of violence since the Palestinians began an uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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